Scotland has a thriving life sciences ecosystem with strengths in oncology, genetic engineering, and industrial biotech. Let’s pick up the bagpipes as we tour the top ten companies driving the region’s biotech scene.
Scotland is the UK’s second-most populous country, boasting picturesque scenery, a rich history, and a strong focus on sustainability. There is a diverse range of biotech startups in the region, with specialists in cell therapy, antimicrobials, industrial biotech, and more.
One big name with its roots in Scotland was Synpromics, a gene therapy firm that was snapped up by the US company AskBio in 2019, which in turn was acquired by Bayer for €3.5B last year. Meanwhile, the Oxford-based drug discovery company Exscientia, which raised a mammoth €434.9M ($525M) earlier this year, began its life as a spinout from the University of Dundee.
Historically, local biotech companies have thrived with support from organizations such as the EU, the governmental agency Scottish Enterprise, and Innovate UK. Life sciences funders tapping into the region’s expertise in the last year include the UK-US venture capital firm Epidarex, the Glasgow-based Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre, and the oncology drug discovery accelerator Cumulus Oncology.
Major universities in places such as Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, and Edinburgh form a key part of Scotland’s biotech backbone. Together with the startup incubator BioCity and the recently expanded Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, they provide a firm foundation from which startups can spring.
With the help of biotech executives in the area, we shortlisted the top ten Scottish biotech companies we think you should know about based on innovation, growth, and fundraising successes in the last few years.
Amphista Therapeutics is taking the fight to so-called ‘undruggable’ proteins linked to disease, with a focus on cancer.
The company is developing oncology drugs that tell the cell to eliminate harmful proteins rather than trying to block the proteins directly, which is the mechanism of action of many drugs. Amphista’s molecules are designed to have a bigger target range than conventional drugs in this class such as PROTACs, with less chance of a tumor becoming resistant to the drugs.
Amphista has raised around €52M, including a €44M Series B round in March this year. The cash will allow the company to take its drugs into clinical trials. In addition, Amphista will adapt its technology to therapeutic areas outside the scope of PROTACs such as conditions affecting the central nervous system.
Elasmogen is a preclinical-stage biotech that develops cancer and inflammatory disease treatments using antibody-like immune proteins from sharks.
These shark-derived proteins are smaller and stabler than conventional antibodies; this means they can hit different targets to those of regular antibodies and can penetrate deeper into solid tumors. Furthermore, they are outside of the competitive world of regular antibody patents.
When the pandemic hit last year, Elasmogen turned its attention to developing Covid-19 treatments. The research, fuelled by grants from the Scottish government, yielded preclinical candidates in January this year that could treat the condition at lower doses than many antibody drugs. Due to their small size, the candidates could also be easier to manufacture than regular antibody drugs, and be delivered via the nose or throat instead of by injection.
The ease of delivering these drugs also attracted a collaboration with the UK company Intract Pharma last year, with the aim of developing oral treatments for gastrointestinal conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.
Originally named 3FBIO, Enough Food is a major player in the push to develop sustainable alternatives to traditional meat.
The meat industry has a huge environmental footprint in terms of resource requirements and greenhouse gas emissions. According to Enough Food, a solution to this problem is replacing animal protein with protein derived from fermentation.
Enough Food uses an undisclosed type of fungi to convert sugars from plant crops into mycoprotein, which is a common ingredient in meat alternatives. The company’s process is designed to be over three times more efficient than those of its competitors.
Enough Foods has moved in leaps and bounds during the last year, closing a €42M Series B earlier this month. The firm is building a factory capable of producing 10,000 tons of protein per year by the end of 2022, with potential clients including Unilever and the UK supermarket chain Marks and Spencer.
Enterobiotix is an energetic startup in the microbiome field, which is a hot area in the biotech industry. Its CEO, James McIlroy, was a medical student when he founded the firm.
The company aims to reduce the costs and improve the efficiency of fecal transplants, a procedure where a healthy donor’s gut bacteria are transferred to the gut of a patient with imbalances in their microbiome. Enterobiotix is targeting its treatments at gastrointestinal conditions such as Clostridium difficile infection.
With almost €3M of seed funding in the bank, Enterobiotix is currently in stealth mode. Behind the scenes, the company has recently expanded its supply chains and manufacturing space in Scotland, and is hiring fast. For this reason, Enterobiotix is a prime company to watch going forward.
NovaBiotics is a long-time champion of treatments for respiratory and infectious diseases at a time when antimicrobial resistance is becoming a serious problem.
The company’s tactic is to re-engineer antimicrobial peptides found in nature to take down common pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus bacteria and fungal species from the genus Candida.
NovaBiotics’ lead candidate drug Nylexa is designed to treat viral and bacterial forms of pneumonia, a potentially lethal lung infection. The company repurposed the drug to treat pneumonia resulting from Covid-19 infections last year, and will soon test the compound in REMAP-CAP, a global phase III trial testing many different pneumonia treatments simultaneously.
Back in 2013, NovaBiotics also licensed a brush-on fungicide for toenail infections to Taro Pharmaceutical Industries in the US. Taro terminated the agreement in 2018 after the treatment flunked a phase IIb trial. NovaBiotics recently licensed the treatment to a different, undisclosed partner with the aim to market the candidate as a medical device in 2022.
NuCana was technically founded in 1997, but the company commenced activity in 2008. The firm is working to enhance the effect of chemotherapy on cancer by circumventing drug resistance in tumor cells.
NuCana’s strategy is to modify market-approved cancer drugs by combining them with molecules called protides, which stop cancer cells from evading or degrading the drug. This lowers the dosage required to hit tumors, reducing side effects compared to unmodified drugs.
In 2019, NuCana hit a bump when a phase III trial of its lead candidate, Acelarin, was abandoned. The decision came after a futility analysis concluded the treatment wouldn’t meet the objective of boosting survival in patients with pancreatic cancer.
Now, NuCana is running a phase III trial of Acelarin combined with the drug cisplatin for the treatment of biliary tract cancer. Interim results for the phase III trial are expected in 2022. In the meantime, NuCana expects results from phase I trials of two other drugs to treat solid tumors such as colorectal cancer this year, and to launch phase II and III trials of these candidates.
Headquarters: Alva (close to Stirling)
Omega Diagnostics develops and manufactures diagnostics for a range of conditions including food intolerances, HIV, and Covid-19.
The company went public on AIM in 2006 and built up a broad inventory of diagnostics for conditions such as tuberculosis, malaria, and syphilis. In 2018, Omega Diagnostics sold most of its infectious disease diagnostics to the UK-French firm Novacyt for up to €2.5M (£2.2M).
When the pandemic swept the world last year, Omega Diagnostics jumped into the fight by joining the UK Rapid Test Consortium, which developed a domestically-produced antibody test for Covid-19. The firm also partnered with another UK diagnostics specialist, Mologic, to co-develop a rapid antigen test for Covid-19. Mologic received EU approval for the test in December 2020 and awaits approval in the UK and US.
In February this year, Omega bagged a lucrative Covid-19 test manufacturing contract from the UK government worth up to €435M (£375M). The Department of Health and Social Care was to decide which test Omega would produce in Scotland. However, Omega’s stock has been hit by recent delays in the government’s decision, in addition to difficulties for Mologic in getting their test approved in the UK.
Nonetheless, if the governmental manufacturing contract works out well, Omega’s fortunes will likely soar over the course of this year.
Roslin Technologies aims to increase the sustainability of the agricultural and food sectors. Like its cell therapy-focused counterpart, RoslinCT, the firm has strong links to the Roslin Institute, which was the site of the famous cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996.
To further its mission, Roslin Technologies carries out a range of services such as genome editing, genomic breeding, and biobanking. One example is supplying animal stem cells to companies developing cultured meat — meat grown from animal cells rather than from animals themselves. Another is screening the genetics of livestock in order to optimize breeding techniques.
While the company’s genome editing offering is still at an early stage of development, Roslin Technologies is already using the tool to generate cell lines for use in cultured meat, animal disease models, and cell therapies.
Roslin Technologies was launched by the University of Edinburgh and the agriculture-focused investors JBI Equity and Milltrust International, and kicked off with almost €12M in the bank. The company recently hired a new CEO and will focus its short-term commercial efforts on forming new agreements with cultured meat developers.
Headquarters: Aberdeen and Singapore
While TauRx is incorporated in Singapore, its primary research facilities lie in Scotland. Unusually for a life sciences firm, one of its biggest financial backers is a casino giant in Malaysia called Genting Group, which owns around 20% of TauRx.
TauRx is developing small molecules that can slow neurodegenerative diseases by blocking harmful proteins driving the conditions. TauRx’s lead candidate blocks a protein called tau, whose aggregation in the brain is a hallmark pathology of Alzheimer’s disease.
TauRx’s hopes were dashed in 2016 when its lead candidate failed to slow Alzheimer’s disease in a phase III trial. However, the firm claimed success in a different phase III trial in the same indication, but only for patients given the drug as a monotherapy. Results from another phase III trial of the same drug in Alzheimer’s patients are expected next year.
The Alzheimer’s disease field has seen decades of clinical failures, including for other players targeting tau protein buildup in the brain. However, the tables may be turning for TauRx. The FDA’s controversial approval of Biogen’s Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm could increase investor appetites in the indication and pump more cash into other companies in the field.
CAR-T cell immunotherapies — where a patient’s T cells are modified in the lab to target cancer cells and reinfused — are a hot topic in biotech. TC Biopharm is one of many companies working to overcome key weaknesses in the technology, namely its potential toxicity and its limited benefits against solid tumors.
TC Biopharm develops CAR-T therapies using specific T cells called gamma delta T cells. These cells target solid tumors more easily and more safely than alpha beta T cells — the most common raw materials in CAR-T. Additionally, the company aims to make versions of the therapy from healthy donors — this can greatly cut the costs of production compared to harvesting from the patients themselves.
TC Biopharm’s lead candidate began a phase II trial in 2015 for the treatment of a range of solid tumors. This trial was terminated in late 2018 for undisclosed reasons, and the company later launched a phase I trial of another therapy candidate for a form of blood cancer.
At the onset of the pandemic, TC Biopharm employed its cell therapy expertise to tackle Covid-19 infections. The company raised just under €2M in a crowdfunding campaign at the end of last year, with the mission of launching a clinical trial in Covid-19 patients.
This is a 2021 update of an article written by Denise Neves Gameiro in 2016.
This article was updated on 01/07/2021 to correct the headquarters of Enterobiotix.
Cover image from Elena Resko. Body text images from Shutterstock