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Norwich Research Park based company helps develop new antibiotics and cancer drugs

21 July 2022

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The battle to develop new drugs and treatments to combat some of the more serious conditions that the human species has to contend with is ongoing as resistance to them develops. But there is a company based at Norwich Research Park that is doing something unique in Europe that is helping academics and pharmaceutical companies to research new antibiotics and cancer drugs, so that treatments can be delivered quicker and more effectively.

Inspiralis supplies a type of enzyme known as topoisomerases in the form of easy-to-use kits to the pharmaceutical industry and academia to aid research into anti-infectives and anti-cancer drugs, specifically when dealing with DNA.

DNA contains all the information relating to a human cell. It is made up of a double-stranded helix but this helix can be twisted either to wind it up or unwind it, leaving its information intact but changing its topology. This happens during normal processes in the cell, but if it is not controlled then the cell will die.

Topoisomerase enzymes can correct the degree of over- or under-winding of the DNA, a critical process that allows the smooth running of processes within the cell. The enzymes themselves are present naturally in all organisms, but what Inspiralis does that is so unique is that it makes these enzymes.

Eighty percent of the kits that Inspiralis makes are exported worldwide to countries such as Japan, China, the US, Europe and Australia. And, because the kits contain some valuable and sensitive materials, they are shipped to customers in dry ice.

As well as manufacturing the kits, Inspiralis also provides in-house screening services to pharmaceutical companies and academia to help identify novel drug candidates.

Inspiralis was started in 2008 as a spin-out from the John Innes Centre. It was the brainchild of Prof Tony Maxwell, who still works at the John Innes Centre. Having started in the labs, Inspiralis now operates out of facilities in the Innovation Centre based at Norwich Research Park, a short walk away from both the John Innes Centre and UEA, which it still works closely with.

Such has been its success, that Inspiralis is now branching out into new markets. Dr Nicolas Burton, joint managing director of Inspiralis with Dr Natassja Bush, explains: “We are now looking to produce larger quantities of some of the products, as well as broadening the range of products. We are starting to produce helicases, another group of proteins that interact with DNA. These are involved in a broad range of processes within cells and are known to be involved in a range of diseases. As such they are potential targets for many new and exciting drugs.”

Dr Burton continued: “The benefits of being located here at Norwich Research Park are huge. We remain close to the academic labs at both the John Innes Centre and UEA and our interactions with the researchers and scientists in both institutions have led to new products being developed.

“Being in close vicinity to these two institutions as well as the hospital and the three other world-leading research institutes means we have a healthy pipeline of people to recruit from who have the right skillsets.

“We are also very supportive of undergraduate students and PhD researchers joining us for experience because science in a commercial enterprise is now a very viable and credible career choice. And in terms of location, we have Norwich and Stansted airports nearby for our export business to work well.”

Inspiralis is still a relatively small company, employing less than 10 people, but is set to grow. To date, apart from a small amount of seed funding when it started in 2008, it has been self-funded and not needed outside investment to operate and grow.

So, what does the future hold for Inspiralis? Dr Bush said: “Developing a wider range of enzyme products will help in the discovery of cures for a range of diseases which currently remain difficult to treat. We will be looking at more sustainable alternatives for our packaging, reducing the amount of plastic we use as much as possible.”

Roz Bird, CEO of Anglia Innovation Partnership, the organisation that runs Norwich Research Park, said: “Inspiralis is a great example of innovation where science has led to a viable business. Having such close proximity to the experts in our world-leading institutes as well as good lab and office facilities will enable it to grow.

“The team at Anglia Innovation Partnership is here at the Park to support all of our businesses and we are looking forward to welcoming new ones that spin-out of the institutions here or indeed those that want to come here to grow because of the fantastic environment we have developed.”

Main Image: Inspiralis makes topoisomerase enzymes that aid research into anti-infectives and anti-cancer drugs – Credit: Inspiralis
Left: Dr Nicolas Burton, joint managing director of Inspiralis – Credit: Inspiralis
Right: Dr Natassja Bush, joint managing director of Inspiralis – Credit: Inspiralis

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