From accidental to essential — How PairX Bio revolutionises cancer immunotherapies
The startup focuses its efforts on cancer treatment by targeting shared tumour antigens.
In 2017, two oncology researchers, David Epstein and Raymond Lee, accidentally discovered that RNA splicing or cutting patterns can be observed across shared groups of cancer patients, not just on gastric cancer patients, which they had previously focused on. This breakthrough, they believed, could be developed into a new approach to cancer immunotherapies designed to help larger numbers of patients.
Cancer treatment using immune checkpoint inhibitors like Ipilimumab and CAR-T therapies like Kymriah has greatly improved cancer patient survival and recovery. Currently, the benefits of this kind of treatment are most prominent in small groups of patients.
Healthcare Asia had a chat with Dr. Lee, now the scientific co-founder of PairX Bio. Founded in September 2020, PairX Bio is a startup that raised several seed financing rounds to help in its mission of developing immunotherapies against cancers, especially tumours, which currently have limited targeted therapy options.
In your opinion, how much do you think cancer immunotherapy has changed the landscape of oncology globally, in the Asia Pacific, and Singapore?
The global medical community, including those in Singapore, embraces this exciting treatment modality as more immunotherapies such as CAR-T cells, checkpoint inhibitors, and monoclonal antibodies continue to be effective on patients.
At PairX Bio, we are developing next-generation cancer immunotherapies that target shared tumour-associated antigens derived from aberrantly-spliced proteins. The PairX Bio platform is built upon a deep understanding of mRNA splicing biology, which, when combined with our proprietary antigen and T cell validation methods, yields simultaneous validation of tumour antigen T cell pairs in multiple patient-derived tumours.
Growth in cancer immunotherapy is predicted to increase exponentially. However, most of the targets currently in clinical trials are targets that have been discovered in the past decade. Using our PairX Bio platform, we aim to accelerate the discovery of these targets that can be exploited. By identifying targets that are present in subsets of cancer patients, we aim to develop treatments that can be rigorously tested.
Overall, PairX Bio leverages the understanding of the immune system and capabilities to identify unique cancer antigens and paired T cells to establish the arsenal required to push the capabilities of immunotherapy, especially for hard-to-treat solid tumours.
There are several biotech companies based in Singapore. What do you think makes the country a suitable place for it?
The Singapore government has invested extensively in biotech for over 20 years and is now reaping the rewards. The country now boasts a solid biomedical infrastructure, stringent intellectual property rights regime, trusted global reputation, connectivity to neighbouring countries, and encapsulated knowledge of the overall biotech industry.
Thanks to initiatives that encourage biotech talent development, such as the 2020 Research Innovation Enterprise Plan, more researchers are developing an appetite for branching out to the biotech sector, creating a large pool of talented researchers and developers passionate about biotech. Additionally, besides significant financial backing from the government, we also have the support of local private investors such as EVX Ventures. These factors make Singapore a “city of dreams” for those embarking on innovation and enterprise.
PairX is currently based at NSG Biolabs, which is considered a co-working space for biotech startups. What are the advantages of this?
NSG BioLabs offers the perfect ready-to-use lab space that allows us to immediately focus on research and product development without building laboratory infrastructure from scratch. This approach is also financially more viable because we need to conserve our spending and prioritise funding for R&D. Being close to the Biopolis research hub allows us to easily access shared equipment and other facilities critical for our R&D.
As NSG BioLabs is a startup incubator, we have the opportunity to interact with like-minded people and learn from one another in various aspects, such as tackling the challenges of building a new company. We are a seedling trying to find our way through these challenges, and it’s great to be in an environment where other people are on the same wavelength and speaking the same language so that we can learn from each other to grow.
What kind of assistance did your company get from the Singaporean government? How much did it benefit you?
Along with the increased impetus from the Singapore government in accelerating development within the science and technology sector, it has been very welcome to support our efforts.
We have received support and backing in growing our startup from government initiatives such as Enterprise SG. With their help, we were able to bring in overseas talent to add specialised skills and expertise that was critical to our R&D, which is especially difficult in these pandemic times. Enterprise SG also showed us the ropes and taught us many things about the initial phases of building a company, which went a long way towards helping us find our footing.
How do you think focusing on biotechnology research will benefit Singapore and the world? In what other fields of medicine?
Singapore is poised to create expertise and capabilities relevant to building a more robust local biomedical industry. It will further propel Singapore to become a major player in healthcare development with both local and global benefits. For instance, the global ageing population requires the medical field to undergo a significant shift to pinpoint what is needed for healthy ageing and to treat chronic diseases. The biomedical expertise that Singapore has built up can help drive that shift by enabling the innovation of solutions that are applicable not just to the ageing population of Singapore, but globally as well.
Aside from the pandemic, what other challenges have your company and the biotech industry faced?
The local early R&D biotech industry is still in its infancy, and we have to catch up to reach the level of that seen in established ecosystems such as in Boston, USA. We believe that many local biotech companies will have to advance themselves to gain a solid foothold in other locations to further develop their products and innovations, especially during the downstream phases such as CMC (chemistry, manufacturing, and controls), and associating with regulatory bodies to initiate clinical trials.
Having said that, Singaporean companies are actively pursuing advanced-stage product development overseas with the eventual aim to bring such know-how into the Singapore ecosystem, so we are slowly and steadily working our way up.