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Profile - Davidson Ateh

Bioengineering entrepreneur on the business of killing cancer cells.

12 October 2010

What does your company BioMoti do?

BioMoti is a company that specialises in drug delivery platforms, in particular a new way to deliver existing cancer drugs that will improve efficacy and reduce side effects.

It's a fairly generic system. We can put different drugs into the microspheres, from small molecules to biological compounds like proteins and nucleic acids, so we're talking about intracellular targets.

Davidson Ateh. Image: Katie Lidster

Davidson Ateh at the Blizard Institute of Cell and Molecular Science.
Image: Katie Lidster.

How do get your drugs inside cells?

We package the drugs into microspheres, biodegradable polymers which are around one micron in diameter and we modify their surface with a protein, CD95, to target the CD95L receptor which is often over-expressed in cancer cells.

Traditionally, it is believed that when a cell that expresses CD95 at its surface binds another cell with CD95L, this triggers programmed cell death or apoptosis. This is one of the ways the immune system destroys aberrant cells. However, there is accumulating evidence that cancer cells can highjack the CD95/CD95L system to their advantage, kill off immune cells and grow unchecked.

We discovered that you could disguise fairly large drug-loaded particles with CD95 and actually induce the cancer cells to ingest them, a process termed phagocytosis. Inside the cells, particles slowly release anti-cancer drugs at the point-of-need, increasing drug targeting and efficacy whilst reducing high dose associated off-target toxicity. So we're turning a defence mechanism for cancer cells against itself.

And does it work?

We definitely have very exciting data. We've been able to do proof of concept tests in two different cancer systems, brain tumours and ovarian cancer, so we're at the stage where we're trying to attract more funding based on these studies to develop a preclinical package to move toward phase I trials.

What's the origin of your technology?

I joined Professor Jo Martin's lab at Queen Mary, University of London in January 2005 and they'd done some really interesting work on the phagocytic capacity of neurons. It was quite a revolutionary concept as phagocytosis is normally associated with cells in the immune system like macrophages that ingest the body's bacteria; they are important in development too as they get rid of the cells between digits in the foetus, for example. But we were able to show that neurons were also capable of taking up large volume debris (above half a micron).

How did you develop it?

I have a multidisciplinary bioengineering background, spanning the physical and life sciences, and when I joined the group we were able to do some work along lines of, ok, this process must be important in neurodegeneration. The working hypothesis was that in diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's if you have neurons taking up neighbouring debris this might increase disease progression. Then we turned it on its head and said if cells are capable of doing this, then can we deliver large particles loaded with drugs.

Do you recall the Eureka moment?

For me, it was at our first meeting discussing results she had with the neurons absorbing particles and the work I would be doing if I joined her lab. I pointed out that this could be a method of delivering drugs and she said that that was something they had been thinking about. She was excited and I had my expertise in material science and how to deliver drugs in a constrained manner.

The BioMoti winning team. Image: QMUL

The BioMoti team (left to right: Davidson Ateh, Laura Camurri and Jo Martin) winning first prize at the QM BioEnterprises Business Plan Competition.
Image: QMUL.

Did you move to commercialise this quickly?

We quickly moved on its commercial potential and got funding from the Heptagon Fund and a BBSRC Follow on Fund. Then we could go more into the molecular mechanism of uptake and that's when we identified CD95 for the microspheres.

How did you develop your business model?

I was then awarded a RSE/BBSRC Enterprise Fellowship to develop its potential fully. That was fantastic as it was to concentrate on developing a business plan, to talk to potential customers, and I had access to mentors and attended business training at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.

What is the present plan now?

We are looking for seed funding, and looking at the business angel sector, which is concentrating on getting money from high net worth individuals who have experience in the sector and invest in people. We're also looking at early stage partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to do reformulation work with drugs with a poor safety profile, or with drugs that have targets but have trouble penetrating the cell. As a company we're focussing solely on oncology.

Why not in neurodegeneration where this started?

When you are looking at a business model its more difficult developing drugs for neurodegeneration because there is a lot to learn and understand about the disease and not many effective therapies out there. But with cancer cells you are trying to destroy and it's always easier to destroy than to protect so we focussed quite heavily from there on drug delivery to cancer cells.

What kind of partnerships are you looking to form with pharma companies?

The idea is allow access to our technology for a particular drug or particular cancer indication. For example, the pharma company will reimburse R&D costs and we've set up a partnership structure for low-cost low-risk feasibility studies: Bronze will reformulate an existing drug; if everyone is happy then a Silver partnership would conduct tests in cell culture in vitro; a Gold partnership would then establish proof of concept in an animal model for a specific disease and then a long term deal, Platinum, would involve us receiving upfront payments and milestone payments as we progress to phase I, II and III and bring in royalties on marketed products. It would be possible to do this with a number of drugs.

Davidson Ateh at work in a tissue culture lab

Davidson Ateh at work in a tissue culture lab.

How does your technology allow that?

One good thing is that our core technology is a known protein but we have a patent application on new use of it. The biodegradable polymer we use is very safe and has been in use for over 20 years. For example, the anti-psychotic drug risperidone has been reformulated with the polymer into large microspheres that sit in muscle tissue and degrade over time reducing the need for repeat administrations in a patient population with compliance issues (Risperdal Consta)…

Similarly, Taxol has been around a long time so we feel the technology can go to clinical trials quickly once we have it approved. And if you use the same compound for different cancers you cut down on clinical trial phases and it's a lot cheaper than developing a new drug from scratch.

Are you optimistic about attracting funding?

With the economic recession it was even more difficult last year, but this year things look better. Slowly but surely we're de-risking the technology as we do more proof of concept studies. If you have the right data it is always possible to attract money.

How much business do you like with your science?

I'm very interested in business. When I was doing my PhD on tissue engineering on different substrates - looking at growing skin cells on a conductive polymer - at the IRC (Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Biomedical Materials) at Barts' and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry at Queen Mary University, London, I attended business courses down the road at London Guildhall University [now London Metropolitan University]. So from an early beginning I was interested in combining science with business, and it was satisfying to work for my postdoc on something with commercial potential.

What first interested you in biology?

I was fairly asthmatic as a child, in fact I still am, so I spent a lot of time in hospital. I was always fascinated by doctors so quite early on a decided I wanted to do something in a clinic, but didn't want to disappoint my engineering father; he had a huge influence on me as an engineer so I came up with the idea of combining engineering with medicine. When I was nine my mum came home once and said "Oh maybe that idea of yours is not so crackpot -apparently there's something called bioengineering" and ever since then I've been fixated on bioengineering. And I did it!

What was growing up in Cameroon like?

My father, an aeronautical engineer, is from Cameroon and my mother, who was a head teacher, is Irish, but I was born in the UK. My parents went back when I was five. It was fantastic... hot and sunny. As a child it seemed idyllic but as you grow up you realise it's not a place you can work.

What was schooling in Cameroon like?

I was the only one in my family to go to government school. There were huge classes of 120 students right up to your GCSEs, so fairly different from the situation here, but amazingly they keep a firm grip on discipline.

Is it difficult to learn in a class of 120?

It's fairly anonymous. But in West Africa or Cameroon at least you have lot of respect for teachers; there's lots of discipline so it's not a problem. Amazingly, a lot of people do really well, although Cameroon is a developing country and quite poor, literacy is quite high. The people are very bright there's just a lack of opportunities.

An advantage of my father being head of the technical division at Cameroon airlines was that we travelled to the UK once or twice a year so it wasn't too much of a culture shock. But then there are huge differences leaving what you consider your country, and it takes time to acclimatise to ways of doing things here, but there is such a diversity of culture in London, and most of my friends from school are living in Europe or the US.

Does your BioMoti work still lead you to travel?

Definitely, especially for conferences on science and international development interests. I recently attended a couple of conferences in Mauritius and one was on biomaterials. Mauritius is a small island state and sort of a model of what Africa could be; it's probably ranked number one in business and development and is dealing with corruption and bad governance that plagues other African countries. Also there was the BioHealth Mauritius Conference 2009, because they are trying to start a bioscience sector there, a base for manufacturing, hospital construction, medical tourism, and that was very inspiring.

I do like to look at the scientific sector in developing countries – and of course my wife is Mauritian.

Can science help development?

My personal philosophy is that we need to move away from the idea that science [in developing countries] is only for one area like agriculture. I think good science can be done anywhere and you should have a global outlook on that. Even a small biotech company, looking down the line, will add manufacturing capability to a country because you're looking at cheaper labour, and improving the quality of products as more people are working on quality assurance for a reasonable price for example. You can do it anywhere because the benefits can be exported.

So developing countries should be looking to engage with high-tech cutting edge science because the next smart idea could come from anywhere, and if its good will be beneficial to export even if it's not used there.

I was reading a story in New Scientist on India engaging with space science and how it came under criticism for wasting money with high-tech satellites when people are dying of hunger. A few years later they are able to use them to detect best areas of land to plant crops in. So you can never prejudge where an important scientific advance for your country will come from.


Arran Frood

tel: 01793 413329