Humabs, a biotech success story in Ticino

Image of an antibody
Image of an antibody

Institutional Communication Service

The life sciences sector in the Canton of Ticino has experienced a remarkable growth over the past two decades, documented by economic studies (BAK Basel, 2014) and subsequent policy measures, thus electing life sciences among the four key sectors of economic development and competitiveness in the region. The scientific value of research institutes such as the IRB and the IOR, both affiliated to USI, is renown internationally, whereas in the Canton their role is increasingly acknowledged, not only for the economic value created by the growing numbers of researchers who choose to settle in Ticino, but also for the opportunities provided to the pharma industry and the healthcare sector in general. 

Humabs BioMed, a Swiss company based in Bellinzona, is a tangible example of a private business enterprise capable of seizing the opportunity offered by the fundamental research carried out in the Canton, in particular at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine. Based on the classic start-up model, from 2004 Humabs was initially incubated at IRB, eventually gaining independence albeit maintaining a close relationship with the favourable academic environment and protecting the uniqueness of the scientific discoveries. Specifically, IRB has granted Humbas a license to use a few of its technological platforms for the discovery and selection of human monoclonal antibodies for prophylactic or therapeutic use in the field of infectious diseases. With this operating model, Humabs enables basic research to find applications in the medical field. As such, Humabs has signed important commercial agreements with large pharma companies, such as MedImmune (AstraZeneca Group) and Novartis, for the clinical development of antibodies to treat infections caused by influenza virus, human cytomegalovirus and bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Viral and bacterial infections are still a serious problem for public health today, and they also pose new problems in the age of globalisation, given that, unlike rheumatic and cardiovascular diseases, they are easily transmissible and can therefore spread rapidly. However, the dwindling economic attractiveness of the treatment of infectious diseases for the pharmaceutical sector has led in recent years to a significant reduction in investment in research, a fact that in itself offers excellent prospects for companies such as Humabs, which are able to remain at the forefront of innovation and focus their activities in areas where technology is more competitive – such as the biomedicine research facilities of USI in Bellinzona – and where the need to develop new therapeutic solutions is greater.

The success of the collaboration between Humabs and the IRB is measurable by the international relevance of the discoveries made, for instance in the field of human antibodies to fight the Ebola virus (www.usi.ch/en/feeds/3445), rabies or the Zika virus (www.usi.ch/en/feeds/3444), but most importantly by the recent acquisition (August 2017) of Humabs BioMed by US-based company Vir Biotechnology, which is headquartered in San Francisco, CA. Vir aims and has the means to become a global leader in research and development of therapies in the field of chronic infectious diseases (chronic hepatitis B, tuberculosis, HIV), respiratory diseases (such as those caused by influenza and syncytial respiratory virus), and nosocomial infections. To better understand the extent of the opportunity seized by Humabs, it is enough to know that Vir Biotechnology has secured funding for over half a billion dollars (with investors such as Arch Ventures, Gates Foundation, Softbank) to support its growth and activities, in leading biotech centres in the US (San Francisco, Portland, and Boston) and now also in Europe, in Bellinzona, where Humabs will continue to expand and to operate and collaborate with the IRB research facilities.

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