Abscint labels antibodies with radioactive material to spot harmful cells

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Hand holding a brain scan
Abscint is one of several Belgian biotech companies using single-domain antibodies. But unlike the others, Abscint is using these antibodies for diagnostic purposes instead of therapeutic ones. After being labelled with a miniscule amount of radioactive material, the antibodies can be used to show on PET/CT scans for example whether breast cancer cells have spread to the brain, or if patients with sarcoidosis are at risk of a sudden cardiac arrest. The company, founded in 2020, is currently looking for funding to bring its solutions to the market as soon as possible.

Antibodies are proteins that form crucial parts of our immune system, as they help to defend us against disease-causing ‘invaders’ such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Researchers have long been able to develop lab-made antibodies to treat and diagnose diseases. Crucial progress in this field was made at the beginning of the 1990s, when researchers at the Dutch-speaking Free University of Brussels (VUB) discovered single-domain antibodies in camelid creatures, including llamas. These small versions offer special advantages, such as improved robustness and relatively low production costs.

Since this discovery, different biotech companies in Belgium have harnessed the potential of single-domain antibodies for innovative therapeutics. Take for example Ablynx (now part of Sanofi) and ExeVir – both based in Ghent. Another example, the VUB spin-off Precirix, was co-founded by Prof. Tony Lahoutte, head of the VUB´s Molecular Imaging Research Unit. That same Lahoutte also co-founded Abscint, where he is the medical director and collaborates closely with CEO Karine Clauwaert.

Read these articles to learn more about ExeVir and Precirix, which raised an €80 million Series B in 2022!

“Abscint and Precirix are complementary to a certain degree,” says Clauwaert. “Precirix is using precision radiopharmaceuticals with antibodies to kill off cancer cells, while Abscint uses these tools to track down cancer cells, amongst others. Abscint doesn’t focus only on oncological applications, however, but also on cardiovascular and immunological ones.”

Saving cancer patients from unnecessary surgery

Concretely, the team of Abscint labels antibodies with a miniscule amount of radioactive material (Gallium-68). The antibodies then track down specific disease-causing cells in patients, and the radioactive material make the cells show up clearly on PET/CT scans. “Radioactive material might sound alarming to many, but the amount is so small that there is absolutely no risk for patients,” says Clauwaert. “The antibodies allow for a very efficient full-body screening. About 60 to 90 minutes after injecting them in patients, you can do the scan, after which you quickly obtain precise results. Our solution is perfectly complementary to the use of biopsies: it will not replace biopsies, but can avoid many, thus saving patients a lot of trouble.”

“Our solution is perfectly complementary to the use of biopsies: it will not replace biopsies, but can avoid many, thus saving patients a lot of trouble.” – Karine Clauwaert

Abscint currently has two molecular targets, one of which is HER2, a protein promoting the growth of cancer cells which has been shown to be highly abundant in about 20% of breast cancer patients. Abscint’s antibodies can help doctors clearly visualize whether the cancer has spread to the brain or not, giving a clear idea of the urgency for specific treatment options. The tool can also show whether the cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes. Many breast cancer patients have their lymph nodes removed as a precaution, even when it’s not entirely sure that the cancer has spread there. When lymph nodes are removed, patients get swollen arms, which impedes their mobility. “Thanks to our precise screening method, we can determine clearly if this removal is necessary or not, thus saving many patients this severe side-effect.”

Saving the lives of sarcoidosis patients

The second target is CD-206, a marker used to detect sarcoidosis. Sarcoidosis is a disease characterized by the growth of groups of immune cells all over the body, resulting in organ damage. When these cell clumps develop in the heart, they can inflict serious harm and even lead to sudden cardiac death. Currently, there is no easy and accurate way to detect the presence of these cell clumps in the hearts of sarcoidosis patients. “With our solution, we can save the lives of many patients with sarcoidosis, who are often very young.”

“With our solution, we can save the lives of many patients with sarcoidosis, who are often very young.” – Karine Clauwaert

The goal is now to bring the current solutions to the market and develop applications for other diseases in the oncological, cardiovascular, and immunological domains. “For this goal, we are looking to raise between 5 to 10 million euros,” says Clauwaert.

Since its founding, the company has already raised 600,000 euros among different investors, like the Belgian inter-university venture capital fund Qbic, the Liège investment fund Noshaq and the VUB. A grant from the Walloon government now brings the total up to 2 million euros. “With additional funding, we hope to start our clinical trials next year,” says Clauwaert. “The ambition is to bring our first product on the market by 2026.”