Dr. Pattyn, founder and Chief Technology Officer, has built up her Contract Research Organization (CRO) ImmunXperts from the ground up. Read her story and get inspired.
We all have our own anecdote on how we got involved with science. How did you start?
I was always very curious, and was perhaps naïve to think that I could help to cure certain diseases, especially cancer. But after my studies in biology I started at a company called Eogenetics as a technician. I did medium preparations, cell culture, tasks like that. Eogenetics was a vaccine developing company, and you know how it can be, you begin to grow with the company so to say, and I thus became interested in drug development. And what started off as very technical became more scientific for me, with questions on how one can support drug development.
And then one thing led to another, I moved company, worked for very big companies and for small companies, and I was always trying to contribute to the company as well as the scientific community – and that was the reason why I in the end started up my own company. Because based on my experience in my former companies I had the feeling that still something was lacking: a very personalized and flexible approach. That was the driver, why I wanted to start up. And I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who have the background to help me realize this dream of mine.
Good segue – tell us about ImmunXperts and the work you’re doing.
We opened up in 2014 solely as an immunogenicity company. The name ImmunXperts was chosen on purpose, because the three of us who were there in the beginning… we knew a lot about in vitro immunology, but we lacked perhaps some other types of knowledge. But we then teamed up with other people, collaborators and partners with the relevant expertise.
We started up with looking at mainly unwanted immunogenicity for therapeutics in development. For the first years we were really focusing on that, also because one of the co-founders was already active in the clinical space of unwanted immunogenicity. We thus logically became the non-clinical part of this nice setup, where the customer could begin their non-clinical project with us and then just progress with basically the same partners for their clinical trials.
Then in 2016-2017, there was this big boom of immune check-point inhibitors, which changed the field of immuno-oncology completely. We suddenly had potential customers telling us that “you know, a flexible CRO like yours, it doesn’t exist in the field of immuno-oncology, we would really like to see the same type of services in that application” – and that’s how we diversified and added the immuno-oncology service. That was a boost for the company, because they were right: there really was this need of a CRO that’s very flexible, that listens to the customer. One customer said to us that he thought we were thinking together with them, and we liked it so much that we today still use that as a slogan, “We think with you”.
In 2020, in the start of the covid crisis, we were acquired by Nexelis, a more vaccine focused company, and then early this year, January 5, 2022, Nexelis was acquired by Q2 Solutions. We fit in very well, as Q2 Solutions are also active in the field of immuno-oncology and have central clinical labs. So again we can offer this useful framework for the customer, where we at ImmunXperts do early assessment, early functionality testing of drugs in development, and then later, if the project is successful, the customer can go to the clinic under the same Q2 Solutions umbrella.
Let’s switch subject. From Mabtech’s point of view, we don’t think there is enough emphasis put on the immunogenicity assessment of drugs and therapies – what do you think could be done to raise awareness of this issue?
I would say there is indeed quite some focus on that. But, most of the drugs that have an immunogenicity issue won’t make it do the clinic, so I think it’s a hidden problem in a way.
Hidden within early development?
Yes, or… a clinical trial is rarely stopped due to the reason of immunogenicity, there are most often multiple reasons contributing. But there’s a lot to do now in the field of cell- and gene therapy. Presently, developers are not obliged to check unwanted immunogenicity early on for these kinds of therapies, and since there are so many other early assessments to do, some developers tend to omit checking for immunogenicity. But as cell- and gene therapies are now also beginning to see issues, I think that unwanted immunogenicity will see a surge in attention, perhaps even regulatory requirements.
Also, the covid crisis has put a lot of attention on cellular immunology, which I think has raised awareness of for example T cell responses as something to check in addition to antibody responses. At least it’s now much easier to explain T cell immunology to antibody drug developers than it was two years ago.
Yes, covid has changed a lot. How did it impact your company?
It was not easy to – especially in the first wave – to keep on working, but our labs were never closed. This meant also that we at times even had more work to do: when other for example American CROs closed down, we were sometimes asked to take over their work. So, for us it has been a very intensive period.
We have also been supporting covid vaccine development work, in which we have used FluoroSpot assays. We started a biobank of donor blood already in April 2020, thanks to a proactive doctor at a triage center that we got in contact with. This biobank now includes samples from covid negative, covid convalescent, as well as vaccinated donors. Some of this patient material is used for research, and some we try to preserve for future yet unclear questions to be answered.
"It was very beneficial to be able to do four analytes simultaneously using a 4-color FluoroSpot assay"
We have tried to support the cause in different ways, for example by allowing a lab that was helping covid treatment to use our FluoroSpot reader (IRIS). They had very precious material from an intensive care unit, so it was very beneficial for them to be able to do four analytes simultaneously using a 4-color FluoroSpot assay. None of this would have been possible without the combined efforts and broad networks established in the health care and in vitro immunology world.
Well, covid has been intense for us, but I personally like the fact that a lot of people are now much more educated in T- and B cell immunology. I know there aren’t a lot of positive sides to covid, but there we have at least one. And another one is the rise of mRNA vaccines. We were already working a lot on mRNA in a cancer vaccine setting, so I really hope that all knowledge and resources gained through the covid vaccines will benefit cancer vaccine development. I think the real strength of mRNA is in there.
We think so too. Final question: If we’re not mistaken, ImmunXperts has an all-female management. We love that! Was it intentional and what are your thoughts about it?
Hahaha – that was recently changed, just a month ago. It hasn’t been all-female all the time, I had a counterpart, the CEO of the company, but he left after the first acquisition. But yeah, during the covid period it was solely a female leadership. But just now we engaged a director of operations to help with the daily management of the company – in order for me to again focus on the real science, rather than the operational part.
But we have never had an intention or pronounced goal to recruit women. I recruit a lot on attitude, and yes of course it’s important to have the right scientific background, but it’s equally important to have a positive spirit and that entrepreneur-like mindset. If tomorrow five males would be the best candidates, then I would recruit them. But either way it’s nice to have a mix, it gives slot of synergies.
We also have a mixture of other types of backgrounds: We’re based in the Wallonia, and we have some Flemish people, some Walloon people, some French people, some from Argentina, some from Netherlands – that’s what really gives the dynamics.
A very Belgian company?
A very Belgian company.
Read more about ImmunXperts at their website: www.immunxperts.com