Celtic Biotech: Developing novel cancer treatments from snake venom

7 Aug 2023

Image: Celtic Biotech

Brothers Paul and John Reid have assembled an international team of experts in biotech, pharma and business to help save the lives of lung cancer patients.

Not many start-ups can claim their flagship product is sourced from snake venom.

Our latest Start-up of the Week story goes all the way back to 1993, when Irish-born entrepreneur Dr Paul Reid emigrated to join the US Army’s medical research institute for infectious diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

There, Reid studied snake venom neurotoxins intended for large-scale vaccine production. A graduate of microbiology from Trinity College Dublin, Reid had completed a PhD in neurobiochemistry from Imperial College London before moving across the pond.

Today, that work has culminated in Celtic Biotech, which Reid founded with his brother John to develop novel therapies for solid cancers and pains in humans. He is also the company’s CEO.

Based in Dublin, Celtic Biotech is working on products derived from specialised receptor-binding proteins found in snake venoms that have the potential to increase survival chance, improve quality of life and reduce treatment cost for cancer patients.

A potential treatment for lung cancer?

The initial target of research is on solid tumours such as non-small-cell lung cancer, or NSCLC, a disease in which malignant cells form in the tissues of the lung. The company’s lead candidate, known as CB24, has been observed to be highly toxic to various tumour cell lines in pre-clinical and early clinical studies.

Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer worldwide. According to World Cancer Research Fund International, there were more than 2.2m new cases of lung cancer in 2020, and some of the leading countries in terms of incidence rates are in Europe. Women in Ireland and the US have a particularly high incidence of the disease.

NSCLC is the predominant type of lung cancer, and the Reid brothers hope to find a therapy.

“The treatment of cancer is a multibillion-dollar space with the leading drug in this space earning more than $14bn per year,” says John. “We believe that our lead drug product, CB24, is superior to current therapies for solid cancers.”

John has a master’s degree in international business management from Trinity. A resident of Dublin, he is the chief operating officer for Celtic Biotech, taking care of the legal, business and funding side of things, while Paul manages product development and regulatory affairs.

“Whereas Paul has a strong science and serial entrepreneur background, mine is probably a little less exciting. I worked in the state and international security field for quite a number of years before the entrepreneurial spirit struck me and I’ve invested in a large number of companies over the years,” John says.

His first interest in founding Celtic Biotech with his brother was when he saw someone he knew get cured of adult soft-tissue sarcoma using the drug. “It was a ‘doubting Thomas’ revelation for me to see someone diagnosed as terminal get the all-clear,” he goes on.

The science behind the drug

In technical terms, CB24 is what Paul describes as a heterodimeric cytotoxic phospholipase complex protein isolated from the venom of a South American rattlesnake that has an “in-built targeting mechanism” and selectivity for tumour cells. The drug has two subunits: A and B.

“Once injected into the body via infusion pump, the subunit A actively and selectively locates cancerous cells while bypassing healthy cells. Once cancerous cells are located, it locks on and releases its destructive B subunit,” Paul explains.

“Subunit B attacks cancer cell surface releasing arachidonic acid. It enters the cell and activates the intracellular phospholipases and protein kinase C enzymes to destroy cancer cells at an accelerated rate.”

After some pre-clinical studies, Celtic Biotech advanced the CB24 drug into phase 1 human trials and the results were presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual exposition 2018 in Chicago for innovative new cancer therapies.

“The plan is to complete phase 1 and phase 2 clinical trials and initiate marketing of this drug under compassionate release programmes in the EU, the UK and the US,” says John. “We expect to partner with large pharma and biotech companies to assist in getting this drug into the hands of oncologists for the benefit of patients globally.”

Strong team and recognition

Because CB24 is still in clinical development, the Enterprise Ireland client company is still in its pre-revenue stage.

But that hasn’t stopped it from bagging funding from prestigious sources. Celtic Biotech was one of four Irish start-ups to be awarded millions in prize funding following their participation in the European Innovation Centre’s accelerator programme earlier this year.

On board as advisers are leading oncologists from France and Ireland as well as one of China’s “foremost” academics in the field of neurotoxins. The operational team consists of former executives from pharma giants Glaxo-Smith-Kline and Novartis, while the chief marketing officer is a former vice-president of Rexall Sundown.

The company is also making some promising progress on the clinical trials front.

“We have been able to establish clearly the safety of the drug already and, while phase 1 studies are usually designed to establish safety, we have already seen clinical responses in patients being treated under these early protocols,” says Paul.

“The history of the drug has been associated with the clearance of advanced disease with remarkable analgesic properties, some patients reducing pain medications and others foregoing them altogether.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic