Editorial Article: Conjugate vaccines don’t get much cooler than this

Conjugate chemistry pioneer Dr. Andrew Lees reveals the cutting-edge freezer technology that made all the difference in his lab

05 Aug 2020

Dr. Andrew Lees, CEO and Scientific Director at Fina BioSolutions

In this article, we talk to Dr. Andrew Lees, CEO and Scientific Director at Fina BioSolutions, about his company’s work to make conjugate vaccines more affordable and how the scientists at his company have overcome vaccine development challenges by using PHCbi’s smart refrigerators.

What are Fina BioSolutions’ main aims?

My goal in starting Fina Bio was to help promote affordable conjugate vaccines. These are some of the most expensive and complex vaccines in the routine childhood immunization program. Having developed one of the most efficient chemistries to make conjugate vaccines we also set out to develop this low-cost protein component, and we've succeeded.

We're very well known for our expertise in conjugate vaccines chemistry and we work with companies around the world, including the Serum Institute. People come to us both for licensing our technology and our know-how, as well as for contract work. In the area of molecular biology, our expression system with an oxidized intracellular environment, we developed it initially to produce one of the proteins which are used in these protein-polysaccharide conjugate vaccines. The name of the protein is CRM197, a genetically detoxified diphtheria toxin.

We have also developed a remarkable E. coli strain that not only produces the CRM197 conjugate vaccine protein but is also able to produce a number of other valuable proteins. In our polymer area — we produce modified dextrin polymers — we take our expertise in polysaccharide characterization and the characterization of modified polymers to make the very best and highest-quality modified dextrins.

We not only have the expertise in the area of conjugate vaccines but we have a laboratory where we can work with companies to help them develop protocols, transfer the method to the company, train their scientists and help them to implement the conjugation technology.

Dr. Andrew Lees

Fina BioSolutions

What are the biggest advantages your vaccine and dextrins offer?

Fina BioSolutions' expertise in the area of conjugation chemistry is unique in that most people in this field either work for big companies and can't talk or used to work for big companies and can only talk. Fina BioSolutions can do both. We can walk and talk. We not only have the expertise in the area of conjugate vaccines but we have a laboratory where we can work with companies to help them develop protocols, transfer the method to the company, train their scientists and help them to implement the conjugation technology. 

The chemistry that I developed — the CDAP chemistry — is, while widely used, not well understood by many groups. Although it's published and out there, the detailed knowledge of how to use it is not widely available. I've spent my entire career working on this chemistry, understanding how to use and control it, and this is something that we share with our clients as part of their development program. Another area where we are unique is that as a small company that is solely owned by myself, we're much easier to work with than big companies that are trying to protect everything and can sometimes be somewhat difficult to work with because they have so much proprietary information that they're not willing to share. As a small company, we can offer flexibility that larger companies cannot.

What are the biggest challenges you were facing when manufacturing these vaccines and dextrins?

There are a lot of challenges in running a small company. We have an additional burden in that we don't have any investors or any other source of funds besides our cash flow. Doing research and development is an expensive business and very often we don't get paid until the project is half done or mostly done. So, there's constant treading of water, and constant treading of cash flow in order to make the company work.

We have been very successful; we are nearly 15 years old and we are now starting to have regular revenue sources. Our modified dextrin business has grown significantly over that time and now accounts for about a quarter of our total revenue and we have licensed products. As I mentioned, the Serum Institute of India's pneumococcal vaccine has recently been licensed in a way that means we'll be receiving royalties from that in the coming years. We are also developing our conjugate vaccine carrier protein, the CRM197, and that is beginning to take off in the marketplace and become developed and become used.

How does the smart refrigeration PHC from PHCbi help facilitate and improve the work that you're conducting?

As the company has grown and as our quality has increased and our need to deliver has increased, we need higher and higher quality and more reliable equipment. So particularly over the past five or six years, we’ve begun to buy more new equipment. We've had -80°C freezers and ultra-cold freezers, but our old freezers started to cause us increasing problems. They put out a lot of heat and started to overheat the lab and this was really straining their compressors.

We are extremely happy with the PHC freezers.

Dr. Andrew Lees

Fina BioSolutions

With the development or growth of our molecular biology group and our new E. coli strain, the materials that we were keeping in our -80°C freezers were becoming increasingly critical and increasingly valuable. Any shutdown time would be very costly to us and the combination of the heat that was being put out making the room essentially unusable, and the need for reliable -80°C storage meant that I needed a new freezer. My two concerns then were the reliability of the freezer and energy efficiency. Another element that I learned about energy efficiency is that the efficiency of ultra-cold freezers decreases markedly with age so that our old freezers were using a lot of excess electricity.

So, I recognized that our -80°C freezers were not just sitting around the lab; they were a critical part of our overall laboratory instrumentation. I was convinced about the energy efficiency and the reliability of the PHC freezers. We bought them one at a time so that we could start swapping reagents from one freezer to the other because. We are extremely happy with the PHC freezers. Once we bought the second freezer, the temperature in the room went from being baking to being comfortable. We have a lot of other equipment in the same area, including two fermenters and a homogenizer that also generate heat, and with all of this going the room is still very comfortable.

The PHC freezer has a built-in regulator that takes care of that and we have never had any outages with these freezers.

Dr. Andrew Lees

Fina BioSolutions

We can see from the large screen on the front of the freezers that they're holding temperature very well. They have an alarm system that lets us know if we've accidentally left the door open too long. They have good power regulation. Our building doesn't have great power or regulation in it. With the previous old freezer, we needed a buck booster to make sure that the voltage was correct. The PHC freezer has a built-in regulator that takes care of that and we have never had any outages with these freezers.  

Having purchased two ultra-cold freezers from PHC, we then started to worry about our -20°C freezer. Again, while we could have certainly purchased another ordinary one or another used one and it would have been adequate, even the -20°Cs use a lot of electricity, and I'm trying to make the lab more energy efficient. The PHC -20°C freezer that we bought was delivered to us cold, and we could very quickly do the transfer and get it up and running. Everybody in the lab loves a new freezer.

Find out more about Dr. Andrew Lees’ research here>>

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