AsianScientist (Aug. 16, 2021) – In late 2016, a band of researchers from the Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) at the Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR) were united by a common vision—to accelerate the discovery and development of immunotherapy, leveraging on the cutting-edge immune profiling technologies to combat diseases like cancer.
With a calling to make a large impact beyond the sterile walls of the laboratory, they founded ImmunoScape as a spinoff company from A*STAR. Their proprietary solution—featuring core technology developed by co-founder and Scientific Advisor Dr. Evan Newell, formerly a Principal Investigator at SIgN—promised to decipher immune defenses against invading agents and our cells gone haywire.
By characterizing the immune system at unprecedented depth and scale, the team looked to accelerate the development of better treatments that activate favorable patient responses against disease.
After raising US$25 million in funding over the last 12 months, the team has their sights set on tackling all sorts of health issues, from infectious to chronic diseases. Here’s a look into how ImmunoScape’s technology captures the complex world of immune cells, making a difference in fighting disease.
Combining diversity and depth
When the body wages war with a microbial or cancer threat, it calls upon a diverse arsenal of immune cells to neutralize the disease-causing pathogen or tumor cells. T cells, in particular, are highly specialized in their combat approach.
To destroy a virus-infected cell or cancer cell, killer T cells each have unique receptors that latch onto designated structures called antigens—releasing toxic granules that trigger cell death.
Well-aware of this diversity, the ImmunoScape team recognized that the secret to designing effective treatments was to first establish a comprehensive understanding of the subtle differences in patients’ immune responses. But gaps in knowledge at both the single-cell and system-wide level imposed a persisting roadblock.
“Despite the successes, there’s still quite a high rate of people that unfortunately do not respond to immunotherapies,” said Dr. Michael Fehlings, co-founder and Vice President for Operations and Development at ImmunoScape.
To understand what goes wrong in failed therapies and find new potential drug targets, ImmunoScape built the Deep Immunomics platform featuring four technologies: TargetScape®, TCR Antigen Profiling, UltraScape® and Cytographer®.
According to Fehlings, they initially focused on T cells because of the major role they play in the immune response. Hence, TargetScape® identifies antigen-reacting T cells—even extremely rare ones—and characterizes them at the single-cell level with excellent sensitivity, describing properties like the cells’ level of activation and functional status.
“This has historically been very challenging because of the rarity of each specific target-reactive T cell, combined with the large breadth and diversity of all potential targets,” noted Dr. Alessandra Nardin, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer at ImmunoScape.
Through TCR Antigen Profiling, ImmunoScape’s platform further identifies the structures of the specific T cell receptors for the antigens they react to.
Beyond T cells, the team has expanded their platform’s capabilities with UltraScape®, providing in-depth profiling of the entire range of immune cells in just a single sample. Given the abundance of data generated by these technologies, they also saw the need for an analytics tool, Cytographer® to process and integrate all the data—extracting meaningful insights on the immune response.
By unveiling how these cells interact across the entire system, scientists and doctors can understand what each treatment is doing to patients and anticipate which immunotherapy or vaccine may be superior in eliciting the desired immune response, explained Nardin. Such a forecast could bypass the need for trial-and-error, saving more lives in the process.
“Our results describe the characteristics of the immune cells as they evolve in patients who are undergoing treatment or vaccination. We generate a faithful and unbiased map of individuals’ immune responses over time,” she added.
Deep Immunomics in action
Given the platform’s breadth, it has already been used in various studies to characterize immune cells that respond to cancer, viruses such as those causing dengue and autoimmune diseases.
For Nardin, it is this same versatility and nimbleness in the ImmunoScape team that allowed them to paint a clearer picture of COVID-19’s impact on the immune system, collaborating with Johns Hopkins University and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
At the time, most studies had focused on antibody responses as primary weapons to neutralize the virus, produced by immune cells called B cells. Meanwhile, researchers had barely started to characterize the T cell pool reacting to SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19.
But Nardin shared ImmunoScape and its partners were among the first to illustrate the broad and robust T cell response against SARS-CoV-2 and its protective effects against variants even when the antibody response is compromised.
Even as they had to work in shifts and observe distancing measures during the pandemic, Fehlings expressed that their collaborative spirit never dwindled. Today, ImmunoScape has grown from a close-knit team of five, to 30 dedicated members across Singapore and San Diego.
While the platform addresses many barriers in immunology research, the team knows that they can continue to increase the scale and resolution of their capabilities. By capturing subtle variations in single cells and their roles in the entire immune response, ImmunoScape is poised to usher in the next generation of therapies—empowering our bodies’ immune cell armies to thwart pathogens and cancer in their tracks.
Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of ImmunoScape.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: ImmunoScape.
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