Biogenes – home-grown diagnostic kit maker hits major milestones

The Petri Dish – 27 August 2021

THE pandemic changed a company’s playing field from developing aptamers or synthetic antibodies for animal healthcare to biosensors for Covid-19.

What is unique is these aptamers are not designed in the wet laboratories but using computer modelling that could be downloaded by anyone and printed for validation in wet labs. THE PETRI DISH spoke to co-founder CEO of Biogenes Technologies Tang Kok Mun and Chief Commercial Officer, Adrian Joseph on their journey in being the pioneer in “in silico” aptamer design in Malaysia.

“Biogenes is a pioneer in producing biosensor diagnostic kits in Malaysia and in 2019 when SARS-CoV2 emerged, we knew the virus was up to a pandemic. As we already had technology platform for portable molecular diagnostics, it took us little time to get into the Covid-19 space,” says Tang.

Aptamers are made of nucleic acid and have high affinity to specific targets like proteins, cells and viruses. This affinity allows them to act like antibodies as they bind with high selectivity as well. Aptamer design and modelling is Biogenes’ core expertise, an area that has applications in various sectors. It was Biogenes’ corporate mission to bring an array of aptamer-based biosensor diagnostic kits into healthcare, agriculture, aquaculture, animal breeding, environmental sectors both in local and global markets. Biosensors are a new way to detect pathogens and food and environmental contaminants.

Biogenes Technologies which was established in 2015 started off as a genetic and genomics company and later embarked on biosensors. In 2018, it was a turning point for the company when it started collaborating with Infrastructure University KL on aptamer “in silico” development platform. “In silico” refers to computational modelling and simulation without the need to use wet laboratories. The advantage of this approach is it offers fast predictions for a large set of compounds.

“The pandemic kicked in just in time as we launched our commercial “in silico” design and validation platform for new aptamers in diagnostics and therapeutics. At that time the big question we had was should we work on Covid-19 diagnostic using our aptamers? When a U.S.A company approached us to design aptamers for Covid-19 rapid test kits, our question was answered in a timely way. The pandemic opened doors for us,” recalls Tang.

Although the collaboration did not go through, nothing was lost for Biogenes. They decided to walk their journey themselves.

“The ecosystem for biotechnology companies is still lacking in Malaysia. Venture capitals and other decision makers do not see the potential of local companies. The perception and mentality that Malaysian biotechnology research and companies are not good enough to invest money in is still widespread,” Adrian Joseph, Biogenes Chief Commercial Officer laments.

“Companies like us are hidden gems that have so much potential and we are lucky to have Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC) giving us the much needed support,” added Adrian.

Tang shared the challenges they faced to develop Covid-19 test kit due to the lack of biosafety facilities that can handle highly contagious pathogens.

“We needed a Biosafety Lab-3 (BASL3) since Covid-19 is a contagious disease. At one point there was also a shortage of SAR-CoV2 samples as cases were dropping sharply between May-June 2020. Previous samples had to be destroyed and cannot be stored. It was a challenging time for Biogenes and this was when MTDC extended the helping hand,” elaborated Tang.

Biogenes applied the National Technology Innovation Sandbox (NTIS) of which MTDC is the main funding partner. NTIS plays a key role in creating a sandbox for new technologies and start-ups and provides them support in capacity building programmes, market access, funding facilitation, test environment facilitation and review of regulations. This is where the connection with University Malaya Medical Centre’s virologist, Dr Chan Yoke Fun was developed that solved the infrastructure problem.

In November 2020, Biogenes received NTIS Sandbox 1 funding of RM 250,000 to conduct testing of its COVIDSENS diagnostic kit, which it has completed. Biogenes is the first company to successfully complete the six months technical and market validation exercise under the NTIS programme, and will now be considered for additional support for commercialisation of its technology under the NTIS and MTDC programme that involves manufacturing and sales.

Besides NTIS and MTDC, a venture capital based in Singapore also saw the potential in Biogenes and seeded them with U$D100,000. “It is not easy to compete with companies in Oxford, US, Taiwan, Australia who have an army of staff and of U$D20-30 million investment. It is tougher when local VCs do not recognize our potential,” says Adrian.

“Unlike real antibodies, aptamers do not require cold chain or preservation. Yet they provide very high accuracy. This is a great advantage for the pandemic and even beyond,” says Tang.

“Another advantage is that by using aptamers, we are saving lives of thousands of laboratory animals that are used to develop antibodies. Our aptamers are easily transportable, consistent and encourages collaboration, Adrian adds.

Biogenes did not stop after developing the technology but they took the science of aptamers to another level by using the bio-computational technique to design and optimize the binding between aptamers and target molecules in a 3D virtual environment. This technique is at least 20 times faster and cheaper than conventional laboratory methods. Tang further elaborated on this mind-boggling method as no test animals were involved that is not only ethical but also reduces the cost to synthesise DNA oligonucleotides.

Biogenes is also democratising the technology of aptamers.

“Anyone can design an aptamer. It does not require wet labs, consumables or sophisticated and costly equipment. It is “in silico” meaning based on computer modelling or simulation. Whoever has designed a good aptamer can upload it onto our platform. It will be visible to everyone around the world. Anyone interested in that particular aptamer will be able to download it, print and validate its efficacy in the wet lab,” Adrian describes their platform.

“We have more than 200 aptamers on our platform currently. The developer can then work out a business model with interested partners with Biogenes as a platform provider,” further adds Adrian who also looks for partners for commercialisation.

To continuously expand their database, Biogenes conducts training workshop for anyone interested in designing aptamers. Their usual participants are researchers and students in biotechnology and bioinformatics. The biocomputational platform allows the aptamer to be designed within two to three weeks after receiving the information on the target molecule.

“We don’t try to build everything ourself. We get someone to do the work if the expertise is not within our core areas,” says Adrian about his business culture.

Adrian added Biogenes platforms are known as Aptamer Design Platform (APTCAD), Aptamer Synthesis Platform (APTFAB), and Aptamer Sensing Platform (APTSENS). APTENS is a simple to use kit consisting of a Covid-19 single-use sensor chip, portable electronic reader and collection swab that can produce test results in under 20 minutes.

With all these milestones, Biogenes knows it is not time to sit on their laurels. They are now working on aptamers for Human Papilomavirus (HPV) and Tuberculosis with Universiti Sains Malaysia and KRAS cancer marker and dengue fever with UCSI.

Adrian believes not everyone has to go the market the same way with the same business model. Biogenes is certainly creating a new business model with unique product to offer.

With all the tough timelines achieved, MTDC will continue to be part of Biogenes’ commercialisation and globalisation journey. With the anticipated additional funding and support from MTDC, this hidden gem is very well positioned to shine in the international market.