I was fortunate enough to get a chance to sit down a while back with Svetlana Sapelnikova, the VP of Business Development Strategy at KMT Hepatech Inc.
KMT is an Edmonton-based service company that was recently acquired by the PhoenixBio Group back in December of 2017. I was interested in learning more about their recent activities since the acquisition, so I decided to make them this month’s victim featured company.
But before we dive too far into things, though, I want to talk about something in the drug discovery process first.
Like it or not, in order for humans to conduct biomedical research, we typically need to do experiments on animal models first. After all, we can’t go around giving humans experimental drugs, despite what science fiction may lead us to believe.
(…Then again, I suppose evil mad scientists aren’t the kind of people who typically adhere to ethics regulations.)
Model organisms are important because they have a lot of similar properties to other organisms while being less complex. This is thanks to the fact that all organisms have shared evolutionary ancestry. Many biological processes have analogues or homologues between species, which means that we can gain new insights into our own biology by studying other organisms.
Take the humble Escherichia coli, or E. coli for short. It’s a common bacterium that naturally lives in our digestive system, but has become a staple in molecular biology research. Students in the iGEM competition commonly use E. coli as the starting point of their research since it’s a very well understood organism. Studying how molecules, DNA, and proteins interact is much simpler in bacteria than in a living human being.
(As a side note, only a few strains of E. coli will make you sick; most are harmless. Lab strains, in particular, have so much of their genomes deleted that they can’t survive outside of the petri dish. Not that this should encourage you from going around licking plates in the lab.)
Other organisms include Arabidopsis (a relative of mustard used for plant studies), fruit flies (for genetics and inheritance), yeast (for eukaryotic cell biology), and even dogs (for respiratory and cardiovascular studies).
Needless to say, there are a lot of them. A lot.
Mice to Meet You
But let’s talk about the common lab mouse, Mus musculus. If you’re murophobic, I apologize in advance.
Mice are widely studied for things like obesity, cancer, and microbiomes. But another common study with mice is toxicity. This is especially important for drug research, for obvious reasons. Researchers need to ensure that their drug candidates won’t harm the patient more than they’re helping.
This is where companies like KMT Hepatech come in. KMT’s platform produces a proprietary mouse strain, dubbed the PXB-Mouse®. Human hepatocytes (liver cells) are grafted onto mouse livers and are encouraged to grow and replace mouse liver cells. The PXB-Mouse® is, therefore, a regular lab mouse that has a liver that is 70% to 95% human.
Developed in 2001 as a disease model for viral Hepatitis C, the PXB-Mouse® has since become a valuable tool for studying drug toxicity and metabolism. The model can also be used to study things like CRISPR, which is a powerful and precise tool for synthetic biology. (CRISPR will be a topic for another day)
For KMT, scaling quickly is a challenge since the mice cannot be bred. Each mouse needs to undergo the surgery to properly graft the hepatocytes. But KMT is a little unusual because, despite these challenges, they have been revenue-positive since 2003. As a service provider, much of their revenue comes from client contracts and grants. Researchers and clients tend to use KMT’s lab space to do their research. Since they didn’t need to scale as quickly as say, a health IT startup, the company didn’t need to seek much private investment at all.
Onward and Upwards
Things continue to look up—somewhat literally. As of November 2017, they are now a wholly-owned subsidiary of PhoenixBio, a Japanese group that works in drug metabolism. Through this new arrangement, KMT is now able to do commercial shipments of PXB-cells®, which (as you probably guessed) come from the PXB-Mouse®. Cell production is easier to scale, and it’s also easier to ship from Canada to the US than from Japan.
For a while, KMT was housed in the basement of the Biotechnology Business Development Centre in south Edmonton. The company is now planning to renovate and move into the facility’s second floor in the coming months. This will greatly increase their space and productivity. The upcoming expansion will hopefully give the company a bit more breathing room as they continue to grow their production and contract research capabilities.
The PXB-Mouse® is already used around the world, so as long as we have researchers working on liver disease and toxicity, KMT will be sticking around.
And you never know: maybe one of these humble little mice from Edmonton will be part of the next medical breakthrough someday.
Got a company or topic you want to see featured? Shoot me a message!