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Export Award Win For Irl Biopharm

Export Award Win For Irl Biopharm - Multi Million Dollar Business Attacking Cancer

Auckland, May 1, 2003 -- IRL BioPharm, highly specialised manufacturer of the “warheads” for revolutionary new anti-cancer drugs, has won a Trade New Zealand Export Award for growing annual foreign exchange earnings to $11 million in just four years of business.

(Note to editors: Media are invited to attend the presentation of the Trade New Zealand Export Award to IRL BioPharm by the Minister of Research Science and Technology, the Hon. Pete Hodgson, on Thursday May 1 at 3.45pm, at the McDiarmid Centre within Industrial Research's Gracefield Site, Gracefield Road, Lower Hutt.)
General Manager Denis Malone says IRL BioPharm’s “warheads” are highly toxic compounds produced by fermentation of specific soil micro-organisms under highly controlled conditions. These warheads – which sell for thousands of dollars a gram - are chemically linked to antibodies specific to a particular type of cancer.

Mr Malone says the linked warhead antibody is harmless to normal human cells (unlike chemotherapy), but when it finds and attaches to a cancer cell, the warhead is released and destroys the cell.

IRL BioPharm’s clients are largely US and UK based biotech companies who are developing and trialling these new anti-cancer drugs. They range from large pharmaceutical multinationals like GlaxoSmithKline through to innovative, small molecule anti-cancer drug innovators such as ImmunoGen in the USA.

“This target market is both focused and growing,” says Mr Malone. “The number of biotech companies researching antibody drug conjugates has grown from a handful in the late 1990s to well over 40 in the US alone. With most of these firms still in the discovery phase of identifying cancer targets, our prospective client base is set to expand rapidly.”

IRL BioPharm was started in 1999 when its parent company Industrial Research Ltd anticipated the emergence of a market for these toxic compounds. Mr Malone says more than $10 million has been invested to make IRL BioPharm’s operations and facilities world class, capable of producing the compounds in sufficient quantities and in accordance with strict international regulations protecting human health and the environment. “By foreseeing this market we stole the lead on potential competitors and in the past several years have established a track record of success. We have a reputation for being able to do the difficult work. We’ve got really good quality systems and when a client works with us there is a very high level of interaction. We present a lot of those New Zealand qualities of working well with people and working hard for them, being straight and honest. A lot of our clients prefer to work with us because of that.”

IRL BioPharm has a staff of 45. The strategic planning capability is in Auckland, the scientific facilities in Gracefield just out of Wellington, marketing and sales resource in the UK and agents in the US.

“We have been fortunate to attract really good people with the highly specialist skills we require,” says Mr Malone. The work is interesting and challenging and it’s exciting being a crucial part of what will hopefully be breakthrough technologies – a lot of staff are motivated by the fact that we are working on some of the world’s leading edge anti-cancer projects.”

Mr Malone says growing sufficient quantities of the micro-organism to produce useful amounts of material is a technically demanding task. IRL BioPharm starts with a test-tube containing a colony of the micro-organisms and scales this up to a large population in a thousand litres of fermentation broth.

“Producing the compound of interest is an exquisitely demanding balancing act that requires high levels of skill and absolute state of the art control of all aspects of the growing environment and fermentation media composition,” he says.

“Typically a successful run produces 50 to 100 grams of the desired toxic compound from a tonne of fermentation media. The finished compound sells for $20,000 per gram.”

Trade New Zealand Account Manager Jo McEvoy congratulated IRL BioPharm on its Export Award win, saying the company has achieved outstanding foreign exchange growth since it was established in 1999.

“In less than five years of business IRL BioPharm has created a world leading biotech business, almost entirely export focused. They are part of a new wave of New Zealand biotech companies that are performing extremely well in highly specialised niches around the world.”

Denis Malone says IRL BioPharm is working to expand both the number of clients it works with and the range of compounds it produces. It is also planning to introduce new services.

“We have almost finished a new facility at Gracefield which will enable us to offer clients chemical modifications as well as molecule modifications. This expansion in our capability will make us more of a one-stop shop for clients.

“We are projecting that we could grow annual exports to $30 million in three to four years. It’s an exciting business to be in.”

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