iBET – Institute of Experimental and Technological Biology, is the largest private non-profit Portuguese institution dedicated to excellent research in biotechnology. Its approximately 200 researchers work on the development of new drugs and also on research related to the agri-foodstuffs industry.
Created over 30 years ago with the aim of serving as a “strong arm” for its members’ Research and Development (R&D), iBET is today involved in research projects in partnership with large international institutions. The development of an artificial heart is one of the main projects in which it currently participates, but the institution has also come to prominence due to its involvement in projects in the area of COVID-19. Of particular note in this respect is its participation in the development of a serological test that is about to reach the market and which was carried out through Serology4covid, a consortium supported by the Municipality of Oeiras and which also includes other scientific institutions based in the Municipality.
Paula Alves, CEO of iBET, recently elected as a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, explains in an interview what distinguishes the institution and offers information on the work being carried out.
You recently became the first Portuguese woman to be elected a member of the US National Academy of Engineering. What is the importance of this appointment and the return that may result from it?
The appointment results from my contribution as a scientist and professor in the area of biopharmaceutical development – new therapeutic molecules – and also for all the work I have done in linking the knowledge generated in academia and that generated in industry. And of course it is a very great honour and a privilege to have been nominated by my peers to become a member of the academy.
Academy members are often consulted by the US authorities, as they are recognised experts in different fields of engineering. Therefore, I may now also be consulted within my specialty.
It is good for Portugal because, having more representatives there, we are starting to gain greater recognition among our colleagues in the US and bridges can be built more easily. I think for the people who work at iBET it was also important, because they see that this kind of global recognition is possible for people working here in Portugal.
When the pandemic emerged, we immediately tried to embrace projects that would allow us to respond quickly in the fight against COVID-19.
The pharmaceutical company Moderna recently thanked us for our contribution to the development of its vaccine. What was your role in that process and how do you assess that recognition?
First of all, it is important to clarify that we do not produce Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. What we did was to produce the first batches of a tool [mRNA technology] that could potentially have many other applications, but which allowed Moderna to kick-start their clinical trials and use that same technology when COVID-19 appeared.
This work was done by GenIbet – iBET’s spin-off company that makes batches for clinical trials – which in 2015, at Moderna’s request, started to scale up and produce batches of mRNA, to develop better ways to purify and stabilise large amounts of mRNA, so they could be used in various Moderna clinical trials.
Of course, when Moderna’s CEO publicly thanked us in December, we were very happy. It was recognition of our role because, despite Moderna having the concept, in 2015, it did not have the capacity to produce mRNA batches at scale, and we helped them with that.
iBET was also a member of the Serology4Covid consortium, which developed a serological test for COVID-19. What stage is this process at?
When the pandemic emerged, we immediately tried to embrace projects that would allow us to respond quickly in the fight against COVID-19. One of them was the development of a serological test in conjunction with the Institute of Molecular Medicine, the António Xavier Chemical and Biological Technology Institute of the NOVA University of Lisbon (ITQB NOVA) and the Centre for the Study of Chronic Diseases, also of the NOVA University of Lisbon, coordinated by the Gulbenkian Science Institute (IGC).
Since I arrived here in Oeiras, almost 30 years ago, I have always felt great support from the Municipal Council of Oeiras in relation to science. We feel that the Municipal Council interacts with scientists and nurtures the institutions that are based here.
With the support of the Municipal Council of Oeiras, which from the outset “rubber stamped” our attempts to move forward, we were able to organise ourselves very quickly and combine our skills to develop a serological test entirely made in Portugal and which will now be marketed.
In April of last year, on our part, we managed to produce the SARS-CoV-2 antigens and the entire process was developed by May. We then applied to P2020 to scale up and produce the plates for this test with the IGC and the Portuguese pharmaceutical company Medinfar. As I speak, the unit is being assembled and the first prototypes are already being made. Therefore, what we developed in April is already being transformed into a product that will also have to bear a seal from the authorities and a trademark, but which represents an example of the success of the work done by a group of academics from various institutions.
Most of the institutions in this consortium are based in Oeiras. What is attractive about Oeiras in terms of the development of science?
Since I arrived here in Oeiras, almost 30 years ago, I have always felt great support from the Municipal Council of Oeiras in relation to science. We feel that the Municipal Council interacts with scientists and nurtures the institutions that are based here. We have this hub in Oeiras consisting of several leading scientific institutions, such as the IGC, the ITQB or the National Institute of Agrarian and Veterinary Research (INIAV), a critical mass that has always been nurtured by a municipality that has sought to attract various institutions, to provide them with the conditions they need to work and which has always been receptive to their ideas.
An example of this is what happened with the Serology4covid consortium, or when they decided that there would be a residency for guest researchers, a kind of infrastructure that exists in other countries and at institutions such as MIT. It is felt that in Oeiras there is a strategy: things are not done randomly and there is continuity that provides us with a degree of security.
Since it was founded, the iBET has been a kind of “strong arm” for its members’ R&D (Research and Development), so as to allow the differentiation of their products, making them more competitive and also enhancing internationalisation.
And does this context enhance synergies between the institutions working in the field of science in Oeiras?
We have always taken a very cooperative approach here in Oeiras, and with the Oeiras Valley concept, the Municipal Council has further enhanced the modus operandi in science that characterises our institutes here in Oeiras, an attitude of sharing. The LAO, the Associated Laboratory of Oeiras, is an example of this. In 2000, following a challenge laid down by Minister Mariano Gago, the ITQB-NOVA, the iBET and the IGC started one of the first associated Portuguese laboratories. Collective work that continues today.
This associated laboratory has made it possible to join forces, invest in joint lines of research and hire researchers to build bridges between the institutions. Given the geographical proximity, we agreed on a model for sharing large-scale equipment, allowing us to optimise investments and give all researchers access to these infrastructures, boosting research in Oeiras. We are currently all working together on a start-up incubation project here on the INIAV campus – the A5. Anything that is increasing the footprint in this area of research and development in the life sciences is excellent for all of us, and Oeiras Valley has boosted this even further.
The iBET is the largest Portuguese private non-profit organisation in the field of biotechnology. What is distinctive about the research performed at the iBET?
When fundamental research is performed, we are generating knowledge and we are not so concerned about whether or not it will be useful in the short or the long term. The iBET has a different working dynamic. When it was created 30 years ago, its concept was based on the MIT model: performing more targeted or applied research to create solutions. In other words, organising knowledge and placing it at the service of the economy and clinical medicine, with the aim of creating wealth and value. Today, we are a major research exporter in the field of Biopharmaceuticals and we work with large international biotechnology-based pharmaceutical companies.
But we also reinforce the R&D of domestic companies. Since it was founded, the iBET has been a kind of “strong arm” for its members’ R&D (Research and Development), so as to allow the differentiation of their products, making them more competitive and also enhancing internationalisation. Its structure includes, among pharmaceutical and health companies, Medinfar, Tecnimede, Bial, Laboratórios Azevedos, Iberfar, Genlbet and Laboratórios Basi, and in the agri-foodstuffs sector, Sumol Compal, Nutrinveste, RAR and Buggypower.
What is the balance sheet of this investment?
Pretty positive. We have long been developing technologies and investing in our own knowledge. At the moment, we have internal project funding programmes under which we are committed to new lines of research that we believe will have an impact and produce value in the future, that will have an impact on the industry. We have grown in such a way that our associates have authorised us to work with the international pharmaceutical industry and, at the moment, we have major research projects with large-scale international partners.
At the iBET we have teams of researchers dedicated to working on research for Merck, Sanofi, Bayer and Novartis, under a concept we call Satellite Laboratories. We were able to create jobs and retain highly qualified talent, for example researchers holding a PhD, in Portugal.
We are working on a subunit vaccine for COVID-19 – a project for which we have recruited more employees – and continue to invest in the production of SARS-CoV-2 antigens for the serological tests that will be produced by Medinfar in Portugal.
What are the iBET’s main research areas and how is the institute organised?
The iBET has two major divisions: Health & Pharma and Food & Health.
Health & Pharma is the largest division. In this area, we develop processes for the production and characterisation of biopharmaceuticals. We work on cell therapies, gene therapies and the development of new vaccines, i.e., everything involving advanced drugs. In this context, we have a lot of experience in taking concepts from their discovery phase and developing processes that allow us to transform promising ideas and technologies into a product. We have an analytical services unit that allows us to analyse all product characteristics and we have Good Manufacturing Practices certification from Infarmed to enable us to release batches of these biological products.
In the area of food, we mainly carry out research in support of the agri-foodstuffs industry. We have three main fronts of action: we work on the development of analytical methods for characterising food and evaluating its impact on health, on the area of nutraceuticals and on engineering processes for the recovery of agroindustry waste. Using sustainable technologies for extracting a number of compounds from these residues, we can, for example, enrich animal feed with nutrients or develop natural fertilizers for agriculture. We also develop more environmentally-friendly processes for the treatment and reuse of water.
What are the main research projects that the iBET is currently working on?
In the area of cell therapy, we have an ongoing major project in cardiac regeneration. It is a European Commission project in which we work with clinicians from the University of Pamplona and with researchers in the field of materials, with the objective of making an artificial heart and recovering damaged heart tissue with the introduction of healthy cells.
We have an ongoing project with Takeda, from the USA and Madrid, in the area of wound regeneration, in which we are scaling up the production process of this cytotherapy product, which is already on the market. We also have a project with an American and Canadian company – Turnstone Biologics – in the area of virus development for cancer treatment.
We recently were awarded another project, in which the Centre for Neurosciences of the University of Coimbra also participates, to assess the potential of adeno-associated viruses in the treatment of neurological diseases. The project is coordinated by Pfizer and the University of Sheffield.
We are talking about products, all of them highly innovative. These are all international projects that involve many multidisciplinary teams.
Has COVID-19 changed your priorities in the field of research? Are you doing work in this field?
We have to maintain the projects we had in progress, but we have strengthened the team for new projects focusing on COVID-19. We are working on a subunit vaccine for COVID-19 – a project for which we have recruited more employees – and continue to invest in the production of SARS-CoV-2 antigens for the serological tests that will be produced by Medinfar in Portugal. In addition to these research projects, some iBET staff members have been volunteering to carry out COVID-19 diagnostic tests. Under this ITQB initiative, within the context of a partnership with the Municipal Council of Oeiras, the iBET provides technical skills to support screening and diagnostic tests carried out at the Oeiras Foundation. That is also what we are here for.