The Big Interview: Angela Scott, co-founder of biotech firm TC BioPharm
And while praising the breakthrough that opened up many scientific avenues for her, she now has another target in her sights amid a Scottish life sciences market that attracted record investment of £152 million last year.
“I would like to put a stake in the ground for helping treat cancer and that is the big thing for me – I want to make a difference in the sector – so if I can be remembered for that, that’s what I would like to do.”
The oncology research and regenerative medicine expert is co-founder and chief operating officer of biotech firm TC BioPharm (TCB), which aims to develop and commercialise innovative cell-based products to tackle disease, improving patient health and quality of life.
Edinburgh-born Scott showed an interest in biology from a very early age, but although her “natural” gift was for languages, having been born to Italian parents, she decided to pursue a scientific career after meeting a PhD student living with her family who was studying chemistry and went on to run a US medical institute.
“I saw his passion in his work from a very early age and so he really inspired me to get into that space.”
She “naively” thought how great it would be to be able to cure cancer, but later realised many of the chemotherapies available at the time were “extremely toxic”, and so felt that treating cells in this fashion was not the way forward.
Her career started with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which merged with The Cancer Research Campaign in 2002 to become Cancer Research UK – with the latter’s total underlying income standing at £647 million in 2016/17.
She then worked with PPL Therapeutics, which was behind Dolly the sheep. She says she grew the cells used in what was meant to be a practice session. Its success prompted people to question her about what she had provided, but she insists she was “very meticulous… we back-traced everything and we were sure it was the right cells”.
Other roles followed, with the likes of Angel Biotechnology and consultancy service Qudosbio, that provided experience she could translate into TCB.
The immunotherapy specialist became operational in February 2014 and came about after Scott teamed up with fellow regenerative medicine specialist Michael Leek. The husband-and-wife duo decided to set up a company that was “a little bit different”, focusing on immuno-oncology, which uses the body’s immune system to help fight cancer, with less severe side-effects than other treatments.
Scott says her operational background and Leek’s commercial knowledge proved a good fit. “We’d both taken several therapies through to the clinic, which allowed us to move very quickly,” she explains.
TCB is focused on treating cancer and major viral diseases. The firm currently has a product, ImmuniCell, which allows a patient’s cells to be taken, expanded and then used to treat that patient. However, it is only suitable for people with a certain level of health.
The firm last year revealed that it had secured£3.6min the largest award to a UK healthcare firm by the European Union to help develop next-generation cancer therapies. Scott says this will enable TCB to focus on therapies that take cells from healthy donors to treat patients. For those seriously ill with cancer or a viral condition such as HIV, cells that have been banked in this way can be given straight to them “and that’s really how you want to take a product into the market”.
This therapeutic option has been dubbed OmmniCell. TCB says it could be a “breakthrough” treatment strategy with wide-ranging applicability to deal with human disease.
TCB has its headquarters and clinical manufacturing facility in Maxim Office Park just off the M8, as well as premises in Edinburgh.Scott highlights the advantages of TCB doing everything in-house, such as clinical trials.
“We did something that was quite unusual in that we didn’t want just to be a virtual company as so many are. We wanted to put in the infrastructure and the personnel to be able to deliver the technology. So we built our own manufacturing facilities out at Eurocentral, and that was very different to other companies… [we can] move very, very quickly into treating patients and clinical trials because we have control of everything.”
Scott adds that TCB was fully operational and able to manufacture product in six months start to finish. “That’s the shortest time, I think, that’s ever been done in the sector”.
Having control of every stage also avoided the more difficult and less cost-effective option of outsourcing key work. But bringing in cash is still the biggest challenge for the company. “I can’t tell you how much time we spend on the funding aspect,” Scott admits.
TCB has attracted capital from several parties in addition to the EU cash injection. Last year, and as part of an $8m (£5.7m) equity round, TCB won its first significant investment from a major pharmaceutical company – the Nipro Corporation (Osaka), which along with the Scottish Investment Bank contributed the majority of TCB’s series-A fundraising.
The Scots business recently announced the opening of an office in Japan as a springboard to further growth across Asia. It has also worked closely with Investing Women. TCB was, in fact, the first firm to be backed by what is Scotland’s only all-female business angel group, which in 2015 led a £1.2m equity and grant funding to help the Motherwell-based firm start its first treatment of UK patients with melanomas and lung and kidney cancers. Investing Women’s Lorraine Porter, a co-founder of Aberdeenshire-based Stats Group, which designs, manufactures and tests pipeline isolation and integrity tools exported to the global oil and gas sector, also serves on TCB’s board.
The angel investment group “stepped in at the right time”, says Scott, who is one of the experts on a panel titled World-Class Women in Science & Tech at this year’s Investing Women Ambition & Growth Conference, which takes place on 8 March – International Women’s Day.
Additionally, in December TCB revealed that it had agreed a strategic collaboration with Massachusetts company Bluebird Bio, including a $16m upfront payment.
Scott said the latter gives TCB more stability, letting it focus on the company, its growth, and helping improve patients’ quality of life “rather than all being around trying to get funding”.
The deal has also enabled it to significantly increase headcount, which currently sits at about 60. Scott expects this to be about 100 a year from now, while TCB is expanding operations at its Maxim site amid plans to increase its manufacturing capability.
As for TCB’s outlook, Scott sees only two real long-term options. These are a stock-market listing, which the company can plan for, and acquisition, which it can’t.
Scott also has her own ambitions: “We have a lot to deliver over the next few years – we have some very key programmes with the company and I want to take those through. I’m a deliverer.”
She wants the firm’s offering to be cost-effective, noting that some so-called Chimeric Antigen Receptor treatments – the kind TCP specialise in – are making headlines for costing hundreds of thousands of pounds to treat a patient.
“I just don’t see how the NHS or Medicaid or a Medicare can really afford that. For the patient, we want to make treatment as de-stressed as possible. We don’t want it to have side-effects that will cause them even more stress and anxiety over what they’re going through already.”
Patients will now refuse another round of a treatment where side-effects have proved very severe, instead prioritising quality of life, which will become increasingly important from a treatment perspective, Scott adds.
When asked what the personal highlight of her career was, Scott says it was the first time that TCB manufactured a product, and ordered a courier to deliver it to the clinic. “All the effort to that point had been realised. Because now we were potentially helping a patient and that was the huge moment for me… that’s where the passion is that sits behind setting up TCB.”
TC BioPharm is a finalist in both the Innovation Award and Rising Stars: High Growth Company (2017) categories at Scotland’s Life Sciences Awards, which take place on Wednesday at the Glasgow Hilton. Scotland on Sunday’s sister publication, The Scotsman, is a media partner at the event