Pharm-Sintez.Lab, a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation’s nuclear cluster, has developed a system for detecting rare forms of cancer in Russian patients.
Lev Voloznev, CEO of Pharm-Sintez.Lab, pictured in his lab at the Skolkovo Technopark. Photo: Sk.ru.
The system, which is already in use in a St. Petersburg hospital, uses harmless radioactive isotopes to create peptide base precursors that can quickly and accurately identify neuroendocrine tumours and prostate cancer.
“The isotypes bind to special molecules that are targeted exactly for a specific tumour, which means they don’t cause harm to any other organs, but go directly to the organ where the tumour is located, or points of metastasis,” explains Maria Karlova, Pharm-Sintez.Lab’s business development specialist.
Neuroendocrine tumours are difficult to diagnose, because they grow slowly – usually in the stomach and bowel – and symptoms are similar to those caused by illnesses such as gastritis and colitis. Pharm Sintez.Lab’s system, using the radioactive isotope 68Ga (Gallium-68), enable doctors to make an accurate diagnosis and determine the tumour’s precise location.
The peptide precursor is given to the patient via intravenous injection. The patient is then scanned with a positron emission tomograph (PET), and the precursor shows up clearly, revealing the location of any tumours. In 24 hours, the patient’s body is free of isotopes.
All the research into the company's cancer diagnosis system was carried out at the Skolkovo lab. Photo: Sk.ru.
The German company ABX makes a similar diagnosis system, but Pharm-Sintez.Lab says its system, which was developed and manufactured entirely in Russia, will make diagnosis available to far more patients here. Its system is not only more effective, providing a clearer image on the PET scan, but is much cheaper too, the company says.
“Confirming neuroendocrine tumours using this company’s [ABX’s] precursors is going to cost about 4,000-6,000 euros, plus the cost of flights and accommodation in a European clinic, since it’s hard to find this indicator in Russian hospitals,” says Lev Voloznev, CEO of Pharm-Sintez.Lab.
“Our product makes rare kinds of diagnosis available in Russia: right now the cost of the whole diagnosis procedure is about 60,000 rubles (about $1,000),” he says.
For now, patients have to pay for the procedure themselves, but the company has applied to get its system included in the list of services to which Russian patients are entitled free of charge, and expects that to happen in a year or two.
The Skolkovo startup is the daughter company of oncology specialist Pharm-Sintez. Photo: Sk.ru.
Pharm-Sintez.Lab developed its system at its lab in the brand new Skolkovo Technopark, which opened at the beginning of this year. The startup, a daughter company of oncology specialist Pharm-Sintez, moved in in April soon after it was accepted into the Skolkovo Foundation’s nuclear cluster.
“Pharm-Sintez’s product belongs to the highly promising field of the development of radiopharmaceutical diagnosis agents,” says Kirill Kaem, vice president of the Skolkovo Foundation and head of its biomed cluster.
“Russian scientists are traditionally highly skilled in this field. State support, including from the Skolkovo Foundation, is important for the creation of advanced technological groundwork in Russian medicine.”
The Russian Research Centre of Radiology and Surgical Technologies in St. Petersburg is the first hospital to sign an agreement with the company, and has enough of the peptide base precursors for about 200 patients. Other research centres – the Burnazyana Federal Medical Centre and the Moscow State Oncological Research Centre – have requested the peptides for research purposes. In Russia, peptide precursors do not require any official certification, either for research or medical purposes.
The company's system for locating tumours is already in use in a St. Petersburg hospital. Photo: Sk.ru.
Pharm-Sintez.Lab also has plans for international expansion, and is already in talks with potential clients in India, Germany and Hungary. Within the next five years the company plans to take at least 10% of the international market of precursors for neuroendocrine tumours and prostate cancer, says Voloznev. To achieve that goal, Pharm-Sintez plans to invest up to 20% of its annual total income in research and development during the next two years.
"We're investing a significant amount of our budget in the future," says Pharm-Sintez CEO Anna Nazarenko. "This is real import substitution, which is crucially important to Russia."
According to Karlova, Pharm-Sintez.Lab has already seen a lot of interest from Europe in its product.
"They know it’s very good quality,” she says. “Now we’re finding ways of cooperating. In India, we’re in touch with several partners, and we expect to make our first deal abroad there in the next month or two. That will be our first expansion.”
The startup’s main support from Skolkovo has not come in the form of grants, but from its facilities.
"We've done an enormous amount of work that would not have been possible to do without the Skolkovo Foundation and the opportunities offered by its Technopark," says Nazarenko.
"Their assistance at every stage of research and development, as well as their facilities, really helped us," she added.
Pharm-Sintez.Lab has ambitious plans for expansion onto international markets. Photo: Sk.ru.
“We’ve [the parent company] been working for years, but what we’re doing now is slightly different, so that’s why we needed a brand new R&D lab, with good equipment, which Skolkovo provides,” said Karlova.
“The labs here are absolutely fantastic,” she says. “Half of the furniture here, including that for chemical manipulations, is rented from Skolkovo. It’s much cheaper and easier for us to use it that way. Also, Skolkovo is absolutely fantastic for connections. If you need to talk to someone at the top [of a company] that you would never normally get to, or a company with which you would never normally get a chance to set up a meeting, they can do it in two calls,” she said.
The startup has also benefitted from the ecosystem of bright young entrepreneurs whose creation was a key goal in building the Skolkovo Technopark.
“There is a very good atmosphere here, we’re around people from different companies, we always chat to each other, exchange ideas and communicate, and maybe eventually we’ll come up with one big project,” laughs Karlova.
“In another six months, the ecosystem here will be really well formed. It’s one really good community here.”