Portugal has a rich biotech ecosystem that is rapidly growing, despite sometimes being overlooked compared with other countries in Europe. Here are some of the companies driving forth innovation in the country.
In recent years, the biotech industry has boomed in Portugal, with some big success stories inspiring the growing creation of new companies. An example of which is Lymphact, a company developing a cancer therapy based on a type of immune cell known as gamma-delta T cells; the technology attracted an acquisition in 2018 by Gamma Delta Therapeutics in the U.K. Earlier this year, the Swedish pharma CDMO giant Recipharm acquired GenIbet, a portuguese CDMO that develops novel biopharmaceuticals.
Portugal’s biotech industry is particularly strong in the area of medical biotech, and is supported by the presence of Bial, the largest pharmaceutical company in the country, with headquarters in the Porto area.
We dug around and got in touch with biotech experts in the country to gather a list of the most promising biotech companies in Portugal that everyone should know of.
Location: Cantanhede, Coimbra
A spin-off from the University of Porto, Immunethep is fighting the spread of antibiotic resistance by developing antibacterial immunotherapies. Its technology is based on the discovery of a protein produced by different pathogenic bacteria that shuts down the immune system of the host.
The company is developing a preventive vaccine that neutralizes this protein to confer broad-spectrum protection against a range of life-threatening pathogens. Immunethep’s technology has led to a research collaboration with MSD — better known as Merck & Co. — to develop innovative immunotherapies against bacterial infections.
Location: Barco, Guimarães
Founded as a spin-off from the University of Minho, Stemmatters is primarily a contract development and manufacturing organization of cell therapies and biological products. The company also has its own biomaterials technology platform; its lead candidate is a hydrogel for cartilage repair that delivers cells to the injury site and retains them there. The material is designed to be injected, offering a minimally invasive alternative to surgery and the use of external fixation devices.
In April, Stemmatters partnered with the Swiss start-ups Limula and Ceidos, which received a grant of 1.14 million euros to finance a proof-of-concept modular CAR-T cell therapy platform.
Location: Cantanhede, Coimbra
Biotrend is an industrial biotech company that develops and scales up biotechnological processes to generate a wide range of products, from biomass and chemicals to biopolymers and recombinant enzymes. The company uses renewable raw materials to make their processes more environmentally friendly.
Some of the projects Biotrend has taken part of in the past include reducing the cost of producing an industrial enzyme by 80%; brewing fermented drinks from fruit juice; recycling paper waste; and producing pheromones to disrupt the mating of pest insects.
4. Limm Therapeutics
Location: Lisbon, Portugal and Paris, France
Operating in both Portugal and France, Limm Therapeutics works aims to decode the cross-talk between neurons and immune cells to treat diseases that are caused or mediated by the immune system, including infections, inflammation and metabolic diseases.
The technology, originating at the Henrique Veiga Fernandes lab in Portugal, regulates a specific type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells that are involved in multiple physiological processes.
Biopremier develops and sells DNA test kits for a wide range of applications in the agricultural and food industry. Using next-generation sequencing technology, it can detect the presence of specific organisms in food samples.
The company’s products include test kits for the detection of genetically modified food, undesired bacteria in winemaking, and specific allergens — like peanuts, sesame, celery and soy — or specific types of meat, such as horse, goat, turkey, chicken, pork and beef.
TechnoPhage started off with a technology platform for the development of therapies based on bacteriophages — viruses that infect bacteria. Each bacteriophage kills a specific type of bacteria, making them much more precise than antibiotics. Bacteriophages can also kill drug-resistant bacteria, making them important alternatives to antibiotics. The company is running its first clinical trial of a bacteriophage cocktail that is intended to treat infections causing chronic ulcers. Other products in the bacteriophage pipeline are targeting respiratory and urinary tract infections as well as COVID-19.
Over the years, the company has expanded, and today it has platforms for the development of small therapeutic antibodies and drug discovery using zebrafish; these platforms are being used to develop therapies for neurological disorders and eye diseases.
7. BSIM Therapeutics
Founded as an academic spinoff based on research from the University of Coimbra conducted in collaboration with the University of Leeds, BSIM Therapeutics uses molecular modeling, cheminformatics and machine learning to develop new drugs for a rare disease called transthyretin amyloidosis. This disease is caused by a mutation that leads the protein transthyretin to build up, causing progressive degeneration of multiple organs and tissues.
Its most advanced drug candidate, currently undergoing preclinical testing, is a potent stabilizer of the transthyretin protein that aims to slow down the progression of symptoms affecting the heart.
8. Exogenus Therapeutics
Location: Cantanhede, Coimbra
Exogenus Therapeutics was founded to develop therapies based on a technology conceived at the University of Coimbra that relies on extracellular vesicles and exosomes — molecular vehicles that cells use to transport molecules across the body.
The company’s lead candidate has shown regenerative and anti-inflammatory properties in clinical trials and is being explored for the treatment of chronic wounds that do not respond to conventional treatments as well as inflammatory diseases affecting the skin and lungs. The company has also partnered with Boehringer Ingelheim earlier this year to explore the lead candidate for regenerative medicine applications.
Location: Matosinhos, Porto
Fastinov is a company developing fast tests to determine whether a pathogen is susceptible or resistant to antibiotics. Its FAST test (an acronym for flow cytometry antimicrobial susceptibility test) can yield results within two hours, which is a significant improvement compared to conventional methods that require 24–48 hours.
This technology can help rapidly find the best antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection. This can reduce mortality rates as well as the costs of care, plus it contributes to slowing down the emergence of antimicrobial resistance, which is a WHO top 10 global health threat.
Conveniently located in a city near the sea, BioMimetx develops a paint additive against marine fouling, i.e., it prevents microorganisms from latching onto and growing on boats. The company offers an environmentally friendly alternative to the toxic chemicals currently used for this purpose.
BioMimetx uses bacteria to produce the additive, which is a mixture of antimicrobials and algaecides. The additive is biodegradable, so that when it inevitably ends up leaching into the water, it degrades within one month.
Luzitin is developing photosensitizing drugs that react to light with the goal of treating cancer. These compounds are used in photodynamic therapy, a procedure in which a drug is activated using light of a specific wavelength, releasing toxic compounds that kill abnormal cells, such as cancer cells and the blood vessels that feed them with nutrients. The main advantage for cancer therapy is that the rest of the body is spared by shining the light only where the tumor is located.
The company has successfully completed phase 1/2 clinical trials proving the potential of the technique and is now looking for a partner to continue the clinical development of the technology. Luzitin is also investigating the technique for the treatment of acne.
12. Nano4 Global
With technology originating from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Nano4 Global develops diagnostic tests for rapid and affordable detection of DNA and RNA. The company uses gold nanoparticles that interact with the target molecule, turning the solution red if it is present, and turning blue if it is not. Nano4 claims the test can yield results within an hour.
Nano4’s most advanced test in development is for the detection of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Others in the pipeline include tests for Zika and leukemia. In response to the pandemic, Nano4 also started to offer COVID-19 screening.
13. TREAT U
A spin-off of the University of Coimbra, TREAT U aims to increase the efficacy of cancer drugs while reducing the nasty side effects often associated with them. The company has developed a platform called PEGASEMP that uses nanoparticles to deliver drugs not only to the target cancer cells but also to the cells of the blood vessels that nourish the tumor.
In preclinical trials, the platform was shown to work on breast cancer cells independently of whether they had the three most common genetic mutations for this form of cancer. PEGASEMP has also received orphan drug designation from the European Medicines Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that is typically linked to asbestos exposure..
A spin-off of the MIT Portugal Program, SilicoLife uses computational biology to accelerate and optimize the development of microbial strains for applications in industrial biotech. Combining artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, the company designs and engineers molecular pathways for the production of both natural and artificial compounds.
SilicoLife is taking part in several collaborations with global leaders in industrial biotechnology, agriculture, polymers and biosynthetic development. One collaboration is an EU-funded project to produce over 100 high-value compounds by studying and engineering a molecular pathway that is central to cell metabolism.
Biosurfit develops rapid diagnostic tests for point-of-care testing that only need a drop of blood from the patient. The company’s spinit® technology employs disposable discs for different test panels, where the samples are loaded for analysis. Using microfluidics and laser beams, the technology can provide a quantitative measurement of the target molecule.
Biosurfit’s test panels can be used to count white blood cells; test C-reactive protein levels to distinguish between bacterial and viral infections; monitor the levels of a marker for blood glucose control in diabetes; and measure SARS-CoV-2 antibody levels to determine immunity against COVID-19 or evidence of protection against reinfection.
This article was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated by Omnia Ibrahim.