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New techniques in protein analysis speed up biopharmaceutical R&D

Since 2003 the School of Physics and Astronomy and the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology (IMCB) at the University of Leeds have collaborated to study the kinetics and mechanisms of protein folding and unfolding. The primary aim of the research work has been to understand molecular mechanisms of protein stability – and the features and environmental conditions that lead to instability.

Summary of the impact 
Research in protein folding and technological development at the University of Leeds led to the creation of Optim1000, a high throughput microlitre protein stability analyser, through Leeds spinoff company Avacta. Used in the early stages of R&D in the biopharma industry, Optim1000 evaluates the stability and homogeneity of complex biological drugs, using just micrograms of protein sample. This screening reduces the costly development and late-stage failure of unsuitable candidate therapeutics. The platform has been sold to a wide range of global biopharma companies; it is reported to reduce drug stability screening by months. This provides economic impact through saving the industry millions of dollars in R&D costs, along with health impact by speeding up the emergence of new products. Avacta reported revenue of over £3 million in 2012 and employs 70 staff.

Pathway to impact
Protein stability studies are essential in the biopharmaceutical industry to identify suitable candidate product formulations and eliminate the costs associated with the development (and later failure) of unstable molecules. Researchers at Leeds realised that their T-jump and T-mixer devices for heating and mixing small quantities of proteins with simultaneous spectroscopic monitoring of denaturation had significant commercial potential as an analytical tool for early stage biopharmaceutical R&D.

Avacta was formed in 2004 as a spin-off company from the research described above. It subsequently raised raised £1.0m through its AIM listing in 2006, with a further £2.7m generated in a placing of ordinary shares in 2007.