Battling HIV isn’t the most glamorous or rewarding war you could fight. It takes a thick skin and acute determination since there have been few breakthroughs to defeat the virus. But anyone working at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, Australia or its China-based spinout Nanjing BioPoint has that tenacity.
“You put in a drop of blood and it separates it into its plasma, which allows you to send it to a lab for testing. For the HIV-infected, this is the big roadblock to doing that effectively,” says Nanjing BioPoint President and CEO, as well as Deputy Director of the Burnet Institute, David Anderson, Ph.D. The company’s sample-collecting material automatically separates plasma from the rest of the blood and allows its to be sent on a dry sheet through the regular mail to a testing center.
The objective of Nanjing BioPoint’s solution is to bring the diagnostic and continuing treatment pipeline closer to home, making sample collection something any local clinician can do. Only 5-10% of HIV and AIDS patients in Sub-Saharan Africa go for so-called Viral Load (VL) testing twice a year as is recommended by doctors to keep a measure of the proliferation of the virus, Anderson tells Geektime. Most of that negligence has to do with distance from testing centers and lack of resources. And for those wondering, no, there is no health hazard to send a dried blood sample with HIV through the post office.
Without naming names, Anderson says there’s a lot of interest from major aid organizations that are in the business of treatment distribution in the region.
“People are already doing it but [are] only correct 50% of the time. Our method is correct 100% of the time,” he says, though they have only tested it with 191 patients with larger trials in Malaysia set to start soon. It hasn’t reached the market yet, but they expect it to be available by 2017. They avoid putting an exact number on the price tag, but Anderson was willing to say it would be something like a “few U.S. dollars.”
Getting global from the get-go to get off the ground
Beyond their admirable focus on HIV, this Australian company is also interesting for another reason: It chose to plant itself in China.
“We recognized, with China’s growing economy and the government commitment to build a biotechnology industry, we recognized there was a lot of potential.” Anderson and company have been doing business with Nanjing for 30 years, hearkening back to the very first contacts between Victoria and the Jiangsu that have laid the foundation for a sister province agreement. “We put a case to our board [of the Burnet Institute] that we should try and establish a biotech company in China with diagnostics as the focus. It took us 12 months to find the right location and grant scheme to put all that together, so the company was found at the end of 2012.”
Now, Victoria and Jiangsu have technology cooperation facilitated by the Victoria-Jiangsu Business Placement program, one of several agreements since the state and province formalized a ‘sister city’ relationship 35 years ago. BioPoint also hits on the theme of many new Australian startup-boosting programs: collaboration. As investment is slow in the Aussie startup ecosystem, moving to places with a more enthusiastic investment has become a lifeline for Aussie startups and spinouts.
“The average investor would rather speculate on a gold company that might find gold in a year rather than a tech company that might profit in five years.” He then referred to a recently announced program by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to give out 18 AU$1 million grants over the next five years, something Anderson called a joke, though he quipped, “I’d prefer to use something stronger than ‘joke’ really.”
Armed with a grant from the Nanjing city government to cover three years of rent for the lab, housing and a few tax breaks, they grabbed an additional IMB 12 million (AU$2.5 million) from an investor in Beijing who was expanding his holdings into the Jiangsu capital. “He makes the point it is the geographic center of the economic activity of China,” Anderson explains. “It’s within three hours travel of Nanjing: You can reach 80% of the Chinese economy at a low-cost base.”
Nanjing BioPoint was founded in 2013 and maintains offices in Melbourne and Nanjing. Most of their R&D is still back in Melbourne at the Burnet Institute, but he doesn’t knock the accomplishments of the team in Nanjing.
“Nanjing has first tier universities and hospitals in a second tier city. It’s got a lot of manufacturing, more on the hi-tech side, but a lot of parts are in medical manufacturing.”
Expanding international collaboration
Australia is opening so-called Landing Pads in Tel Aviv, Shanghai, San Francisco, Berlin and Singapore to encourage local companies to get hooked into scenes in other innovation hubs. Besides the sister agreement with Jiangsu, Victoria also has one with Israel called VISTECH. Anderson hopes that collaborative spirit and the success of his company will make it easier to network with more international partners, or perhaps create tripartite agreements with a couple of partners at a time.
“We are certainly encouraging other Aussie groups to follow our lead and do this. We have been keen when talking to the Jiangsu and Victorian governments to suggest the tripartite agreement with Israel but given the five years it took to make this one,” he says, he’ll focus on getting his products to the shelves first.
BioPoint’s next big initiative is another reason Nanjing was excited to get the Burnet spinout. The WHO reports that more than a third of the world’s Hepatitis B cases are in China, with an estimated 90 million cases in China out of a total of 240 million cases worldwide, while Anderson claims this figure should be closer to 50 percent. In either case, Hepatitis is a serious issue in China.
“Our intent is to develop a test that will detect [an] elevated level of liver enzymes in a point-of-care (POC) test like a pregnancy test,” a project that should be hitting the manufacturing line by the end of 2017. For people with viral hepatitis or drug toxicity from HIV treatments or from metabolic diseases, you need to test their blood for indicators of liver disease.”
Anderson says the World Health Organization’s target for VL testing, 90% he says, is still some distance off. Meanwhile, he is excited about how his company can help the global battle against HIV.
“At the same time, manufacturers are working to make instruments that can go to lower and lower levels of the health system. We imagine in 10 years time, instead of the central lab for the whole country, you can go to the regional health center, and then another 10 years for the local clinic.”