Cape Bio Pharms – Homegrown Pharmaceuticals

Through its plant-based protein harvesting systems, Cape Bio Pharms is hoping to reduce Africa’s dependence on import pharmaceuticals.

Cape Bio Pharms is a spin-off of the University of Cape Town’s Biopharming Research Unit having spent over two decades expressing proteins in a relative of the tobacco plant. Belinda and Tamlyn Shaw, a mother and daughter team, realised the disruptive nature of this expression platform as a perfect solution to contributing to biosecurity for Africa.

“We took this technology and commercialised it. We raised some grant funding and investor funding and started building the facility in 2018,” explains founder and CEO, Belinda Shaw. “We used the method to produce a number of research reagents, antibodies and antigens, that are used in labs around the world every single day. Antibodies are the work-horses of drug discovery, so an economical and secure supply is critical for researchers.”

Cape Bio Pharms use a plant-based system to produce proteins very rapidly. It is a technique that allows for proteins to be swapped out and changed easily, leading to short delivery times and improved speed-to-market times for new products.

“When we started production and building up our product pipeline, by December 2019 we had 30 different variants,” Shaw recalls. “Then Covid came and tipped everything upside down. We recognised the significance of the virus early on and sourced the appropriate sequences in the early days, producing the necessary proteins to meet the demand for reagents. We then secured a substantial grant from FIND – the Foundation for Innovative & New Diagnostics that enabled us to expand our facility’s production capacity from around 80mg a week to over 20,000 mg a month in production.”

Cape Bio Pharms has produced a wide variety of proteins to combat Covid-19 and now has developed a suite of proteins for a neutralising antibody test kit – one that can test if your vaccine has worked.  The company is now expanding its pipeline beyond Covid into critical reagents for the diagnosis of many other infectious diseases, particularly in Africa. The company is creating proteins to help combat Ebola, Malaria, HIV that have been neglected in the rush to fight coronavirus.

Putting the “Plant” in Pharmaceutical Plant

But across all these sectors, Cape Bio Pharms has a competitive edge in the form of its protein expression platform. But as Shaw points out, Cape Bio Pharms’ objective is not to replace the existing expression platforms such as mammalian cell culture system, yeast, bacterial or in eggs, but to complement it with an alternative that is best suited to low and middle-income countries.

“We regard it as a disruptive platform,” Shaw says. “Our USP is using a plant-based platform that offers cheaper locally made proteins, that can achieve a speed-to-market of literally weeks as opposed to months. Plants can also produce very complex protein constructs making them a versatile and flexible system. Our main focus is that 80% of proteins in Africa are imported. We have very little local manufacturing capacity, and that’s where our platform offers a unique opportunity to ensure biosecurity for Africa and develop protein manufacturing security.”

This platform offers a high speed to market, a low cost, and offers the flexibility to swap out proteins quickly, letting Cape Bio Pharms react to changes in demand a lot faster than traditional systems. The key benefit of the platform is that it does not use any animals or animal products, eliminating the risk of the transfer of animal pathogens which is critical when entering the therapeutic or vaccine space.

But how does this platform work?

“The plant itself is a distant cousin of the tobacco plant, called Nicotiana benthamiana. It has a very low immune response so we can infiltrate it with a bacterium without it putting up much resistance, and in the bacteria, we can put any gene to code for any protein we want to produce,” Shaw explains. “The gene (protein) is transformed into (embedded in) the bacteria, which is then infiltrated into the leaves of thousands of these plants.  We produce over 8,000 plants a week. The plant reads the inserted genes and continues to produce the corresponding protein, which they do naturally anyway. It takes anywhere between three and six days for the plant to produce substantial amounts of our protein. Within a week we can decide what gene (protein) to put into the plants, so that is the beauty of a plant-based system. Once we have the proteins ready, we can decide what to produce according to the needs of the market. It is perfectly suited to responding quickly to regional epidemics or global pandemics”

Building an equivalent cell culture-based platform can take four or five years, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the result can be difficult to scale up with long lead times for new products, but none of this is an issue with the plant-based approach.

“In our grow rooms we recruit unskilled workers and train them in how to look after the plants, learn about hydroponics and environmental controls to ensure we have the really healthy plants. We also have over 15 scientists and as a woman-owned biotech company we like to give women first dibs at joining our team.  We have a wonderful team being trained in various aspects of our work straight out of university.”

Shaw emphasises that the vision for Cape Bio Pharms is about more than just fighting the pandemic.

“It’s not just about Covid,” she says. “Covid just shows us the need. We’ve low levels of vaccination on the continent, where northern continents can vaccinate their own population several times over. It’s critical that we develop our own capability.”

It is not enough to simply build that capability, however. Cape Bio Pharms also needs to fight for access to the market itself.

“We’re a start-up with a relatively unknown expression platform in a regulated industry where five or six players control 80% of the market,” Shaw points out. “We’re not interested in playing in the same market as the established producers. We have flexibility which means small runs are as cheap to do as large ones. We are able to operate in the margins, and I think the plant-based platform is critically suited for that. What is important to realise is that these large traditional stainless-steel plants may be regarded as ‘best practice’, but they really are of no use to Africa.  They are not here simply because they are too expensive.  But we are and we can make a real difference, not only to produce critical proteins but to build capacity and skills so we can begin shifting the volume of imports and replacing with our own Africa-made proteins”.

The company is continuing to research and develop new products, including diagnostics for the veterinary market, exploring orally delivered veterinary vaccines, and helping to build the African pharmaceutical sector. But Shaw is also setting her sights further afield.

“Vaccine’s manufacturing capability is essential in Africa.  The fact that in June 2021, only about 1,4% of the population in Africa was vaccinated is shocking. We do not need to be in the queue. We want to be self-sufficient,” Shaw points out. “Once we come into our own, I can foresee us exporting instead.”

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