To what extent has COVID brought forward the arrival of mRNA platforms?
A year ago we were telling people externally we thought that mRNA was going to become one of the biggest markets for our DNA platform, but that it needed a clinical inflection point. At that time nobody was producing at scale, but the effect of COVID-19 was that these platforms were completely validated by the efforts of BioNTech and Moderna in getting vaccines to market and showing that they are efficacious. That accelerated the arrival of a commercial market for nucleic acid vaccinations, which will have knock on effects into broader markets. For example, mRNA will be used extensively in the genome editing space, and it is usually important to have a validated delivery vector in those spaces to push those markets forward.
What is the strategy behind Touchlights’ hybrid business model?
It comes down to the sheer breadth of application of DNA out there. There are hundreds of different applications of dbDNA that we could go after. Fundamentally, Touchlight is focused on enabling the industry for genetic medicine, whether it is production of viral vectors for gene therapy, production of nucleic acid medicines, such as mRNA or DNA vaccines. The real thrust of our model is behind getting broad adoption of our technology as a contract manufacturing company, but there are all of these new industries that turn up, such as base editing or certain genome editing applications. We believe it is imperative to invest further in those future applications of the dbDNA platform in order to generate the full value of what it can do. This includes DNA vaccination, which is not quite as close to market as the mRNA companies, but we can generate a differentiated proposition in those slightly more distant markets by investing ourselves and preparing the platform for the future.
How does Touchlights’ Doggybone DNA technology overcome the inherent issues of plasmid?
The fundamental difference between the Doggybone platform and the plasmid DNA production platforms is that we eliminate cells, so we are an acellular or synthetic process for making DNA. If you are making anything in cells, then you typically have to do it in a bioreactor. To make more of it you have to do it in a bigger bioreactor with complicated equipment and significant facility footprint. You also have high labor costs and time associated with making that material, because in principle, you are asking a cell to grow your drug or DNA. In contrast, we do this by utilizing enzymes to amplify our DNA material. What can be done in a bioreactor at 300 liters for fermentation to make plasmid, we can do in a couple of liters on a benchtop in a plastic bioprocess bag or bottle. That alters the cost structure of how you produce DNA. We are amplifying DNA, where we use enzymes and nucleotides and have them amplified together and purified, taking the DNA away from the enzyme.
How is the program with Cancer Research UK in therapeutic DNA vaccines paving the way for other therapeutic players to use Touchlight’s platform?
It means that we can blaze our own path through the regulatory processes, through the manufacturing required, to be the first people to control the clinical dosing of dbDNA as a direct therapeutic. That has huge benefits in terms of a halo effect on our platform because it answers a huge number of questions that a client might have about the validity, comparability, and the tox package of the dbDNA platform. It uses highly immunogenic antigens that we in-licensed from a university that we think could have a huge impact in the patient population with a very high unmet need. It is a very exciting asset but also, it blazes a trail for dbDNA in the clinic and has a much broader impact on the applicability of the platform for others.
What is the long-term vision for Touchlight?
Our fundamental vision is that we want to disrupt the market for plasmid DNA. That means we will need to scale, and have our technology adopted by a very large number of companies and prove our value proposition that we can produce this material quicker, with better purity, more scalably, and enable the industry of genetic medicines.