iBET – Institute of Experimental and Technological Biology is a non-profit institution dedicated to excellence in biotechnology research. Established in Oeiras 30 years ago, iBET was one of the entities that recently joined the Serology4COVID consortium for the development of serological tests. Within 10 days, iBET was able to produce the protein needed for these tests, a job that normally takes a month and a half. Paula Alves, CEO of iBET, explains in an interview what distinguishes the leading institution and what are the main challenges for the future.
How did the opportunity arise for iBET to be involved in the development of the serological COVID-19 tests?
We have a lot of research skills here at iBET, focused on the handling of viruses, both from a vaccine development perspective and from a gene therapy perspective. In this regard, we were contacted by the Gulbenkian Institute of Science to join this consortium which also includes the Institute of Molecular Medicine, the António Xavier Institute of Chemical and Biological Technology of the NOVA University of Lisbon and the Center for the Study of Chronic Illness, also part of the NOVA University of Lisbon. This project was immediately supported by the Oeiras City Council and the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation.
In this project, iBET’s role was to produce the viral proteins needed for serological tests. iBET is the only one of these institutions that has the capacity to produce these proteins on a medium-large scale.
We received the plasmids that encode these proteins from the US on 3 April, and on 13 April we were handing them over to the other members of the consortium, a process that usually takes a month and a half.
What is the importance of these serological tests in the current context?
These tests are very important because they will allow for monitoring and screening to see whether or not people already have antibodies [against the virus, resulting from an infection] and whether or not they remain [in circulation].
When will these tests reach the market and become massified?
We have already prepared the entire protocol and the test is ready. Having already validated the test in the laboratories of the consortium, it is now up to the National Institute of Health Dr. Ricardo Jorge, and then Infarmed, to decide whether or not the test should be used.
I shall emphasise that this project came at a time when there was a shortage of masks and other medical and protective equipment. We were dependent on foreign suppliers to supply our country and our idea was: “We know how to do this – let’s do tests made in Portugal”. In addition to guaranteeing the independence of the foreigner, we were also concerned with developing a more affordable test. Now we need a company that will increase the scale and bring the tests to market.
After this phase, will the consortium continue to carry out further research regarding COVID-19?
The purpose that led to the creation of the consortium is now complete. If government authorities decide they want to have a test made in Portugal, a test using reagents made in Portugal, then in this next phase the iBET will also be involved, to teach how to produce the proteins. In this regard, the entire consortium will be involved in the technology transfer and its validation.
A curious fact about this consortium is that the vast majority of the research entities involved are located in Oeiras. What is attractive about Oeiras for scientific development?
This research hub has been here for 30 years and is a distinctive core in the areas of biotechnology, biomedicine and agriculture. The fact that Oeiras had the capacity to attract these institutions that practice science was fundamental to our growth, to this learning process and to being able to work together. The IMM is in Lisbon, but many of its researchers have been here, at the IGC and the ITQB. We have a bubble of excellence on this campus, and we feel cherished by Oeiras City Council, which has created science awards and is open to hearing our suggestions.
What sets iBET research apart?
We are really good at biotechnology and life sciences. iBETuses science to solve concrete problems and focuses on more applied research. Our mission is to carry out research and development and to position ourselves at the service of businesses, the economy and medicine. And that is what makes us different. We are known internationally for our commitment and delivery. iBEThas an international prestige that sets us apart in this area of biotechnology. At the moment, more companies are approaching us than we are looking for.
Is iBET’s proximity to companies in any way related to the shareholder structure of the institute?
iBETis a private, non-profit institution that was created 30 years ago and that has added other companies to its structure, such as Sumol Compal, Sovena, Vitacress, RAR, Bial, Medinfar, Tecnimed, among others. 30 years ago companies did not have their own R&D and needed access to research and innovation to differentiate their products. And that was the goal that was always in iBET’s DNA: to organise the research that was done in the academy and position it at the service of Portuguese companies.
Do you believe that the future of science will require greater proximity between research institutions and businesses?
I think that science and research has to be done without the objective of immediate transfer to the economy. Research must generate knowledge [because knowledge is the basis of science]. It is usually the public authorities that finance such research, because it is research that requires continuous investment over many years and does not have a quick end in sight. But it is also important to understand that in addition to this type of research, applied research is also necessary [because this is what generates wealth]. There has to be both.
How is iBET organised?
iBEThas two main divisions at the moment: Health & Pharma and Food & Health.
In the Health & Pharma area we basically work with biological products. We are the only unit in the country with the capacity to develop biological products from the laboratory to the production of clinical batches. Within this area there are two divisions: the analytical services unit, certified by Infarmed and which allows us to characterise these biological products, and the production and scaling unit, which is a differentiating factor, and which allows us to develop methodologies for the production of a biological product on an industrial scale.
Besides the Health & Pharma area we also have the Food & Health area, where we do research to support the agri-food industry. In order to differentiate their products on the market, companies often need innovation and research, and we are the ones they turn to. We work a lot in the area of food engineering and environment. For example, we have projects with the objective of creating value from waste material from the agri-food industry, or with the objective of creating more environmentally friendly methodologies in the extraction of these natural compounds and in the treatment of wastewater.
What are iBET’s main goals for the future?
The world never stops. A company may be fine today, but that doesn’t mean its model will still work tomorrow. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges is to have a critical mass in order to be aware of what is happening in the world and to identify new opportunities.
We have to understand today what will be necessary five years from now. In Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals, for example, we are working on cellular therapies, safer vaccines and products that lead us to think about customised therapies. There are also interesting projects in the area of nutrition, as more and more people want to know what they eat and concerns about the environment are growing.
This is why people are at the core of iBET. We invest in people, in order to have a critical mass that is motivated and aware, in order to be able to identify the next trends.