Belgian stem cell company GST bought by German pharmaceutical giant

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Griet Nuytinck and Jan Spaas with a horse

The German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim has acquired GST, a stem cell specialist based in Belgium. A part of the Anacura Group, GST’s main focus is in animal health, with its main product being a stem cell therapy for injured horses. Despite the acquisition, the company will remain in its labs near Ghent, keeping its research and production rooted in Flemish soil.

By Amy LeBlanc

CEO Jan Spaas founded GST after experiencing how common horse injuries were when competing in European jumping championships as a young man. After studying veterinary sciences at Ghent University (which was recently named the world’s top university for veterinary sciences), Spaas established GST together with his veterinarian wife Sarah Broeckx. Their aim was to use stem cells, an emerging and as-yet experimental method, to develop therapies for horses and other domestic animals. To do so, the young company needed support from a more experienced partner.

A perfect partnership

In 2014, GST found the support it was looking for thanks to a fortuitous meeting with Griet Nuytinck. A long-time member of the Belgian life sciences ecosystem, Nuytinck is the founder and CEO of the Anacura Group, which consists of a medical laboratory for doctors and a pharmaceutical laboratory active as a CRO for drug development. Nuytinck was impressed by the GST team’s vision and the clinical data they had already managed to produce. She explains:

“In 2014, we’d just finished building a new facility where we had plenty of possibilities for innovation. We were on a mission to deploy our forces for the development of our own medical products, a dream I’d had for quite a few years, but also had room to spare. When we met Jan Spaas and Sarah Broeckx, we were immediately charmed by their stem cell work and by the clinical evidence they could already present on osteoarthritis in horses. As our new building had coincidentally just been finished, with all the technical facilities and certifications needed to support GSTs growth, we decided to incorporate the young biotech into the Anacura Group and help them realize their ambitions.”

Under the wings of Anacura, GST has grown into a scale-up with a well-developed technology platform and a solid pipeline of new, innovative products. It has been a perfect match. – Griet Nuytinck

Anacura aquired 85% of GST’s shares and began the process of research, development and production that would lead to the company’s maturation over the next six years.

“It has been both a successful and happy cooperation,” Nuytinck says. “The partnership has been beneficial to both GST and Anacura. To this day, stem cell technology is still very new, but both parties have enthusiastically taken on the challenge and worked together on novel methods and systems to improve the potency, safety and efficacy of the stem cell products. We’ve also provided GST with the professional support and experience with the biotech business environment that it needed. Under the wings of Anacura, GST has grown into a scale-up with a well-developed technology platform and a solid pipeline of new, innovative products. It has been a perfect match.”

The world’s first animal stem cell product

In 2019, GST (Global Stem cell Technology) gained approval for the world’s first veterinary stem cell product. The therapy, called Arti-Cell® Forte, uses stem cells to treat lameness in horses caused by joint inflammation. The product is made by reprogramming stem cells from the blood of healthy horses which, after being injected into a hurt animal, stimulate the horse’s own body to produce cartilage and repair the injury.

The marketing and the distribution of the product was taken care of by a partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim, initiated in 2018. Nuytinck explains how the partnership came about:

“Boehringer Ingelheim really did their research prior to this collaboration: they scouted out a bunch of different stem cell companies and came straight back to GST because of our professionalism and the quality and innovation of our research. This partnership has been key to the success of Arti-Cell® Forte, because stem cell therapies are still so new that the marketing required is far more extensive than for an older and more common therapy.”

I believe we will be seeing many new products from GST in the coming years… The possibilities in stem cell therapy seem endless. – Griet Nuytinck

Since launching the product in Europe with the support of Boehringer Ingelheim, GST has received requests for Arti-Cell® Forte from all around the world, including the Middle East and the US. Under Boehringer Ingelheim’s wing, GST will now be able to market its products to the world. In addition to further therapies for horses, the company also aims to use its technology to treat other mammals, with several therapies already in the pipeline. With Boehringer Ingelheim’s support, the GST team hopes to eventually move into human stem cell therapies as well.

“This acquisition gives GST the opportunity to grow,” Nuytinck affirms. “The transition from start-up to scale-up was possible in the Anacura Group, as the main focus for that stage was on R&D and production. But for the next level of R&D and for the worldwide distribution of its products, GST absolutely needs a global pharmaceutical company with a strong sales and marketing force. I believe we will be seeing many new products from GST in the coming years: the clinical results for new products in the GST pipeline, which are for horses, dogs and cats, were very promising already before the acquisition. We are convinced that GST will be in excellent hands with Boehringer Ingelheim: together, they have a bunch of plans they want to realize. The possibilities in stem cell therapy seem endless.” 

Read this previous BioVox article for fresh insights into the future of cell therapy.

Keeping innovation rooted in Belgian soil

Although the Boehringer Ingelheim acquisition figure was not disclosed, it’s safe to say GST went for a significant sum of money. In 2018, GST company was already valued at 20 million euros, which was before: a capital increase with PMV; the collaborative deal with Boehringer Ingelheim; and the launch of GST’s main product Arti-Cell® Forte. According to Nuytinck, however, an important part of this deal is that GST will remain in the Anacura labs for the time being:

“The acquisition of GST gives Jan Spaas and his team every opportunity to further develop the stem cell platform, while continuing to embed innovative stem cell research in our laboratories in Flanders. We could not have wished for a better scenario. As GST’s R&D activities and production will continue to take place in our own facilities for at least the next 5 years, Anacura’s CRO activities in release testing will increase as GST grows. For Anacura, this is a milestone that makes us stronger, and we have many plans for further investments and our own development. It is an excellent deal for both parties.”

This acquisition can be seen as a testament to the potential of the Belgian biotech cluster and how it is viewed by international pharma companies. – Griet Nuytinck

Nuytinck believes the acquisition is also a recognition of the strength of local biotech and innovation:

“This acquisition can be seen as a testament to the potential of the Belgian biotech cluster and how it is viewed by international pharma companies. That GST’s R&D and production activities will be continued in Belgium can be taken as a real sign of confidence in the local expertise and talent which are enabling the company’s growth. It is very encouraging that an international pharmaceutical giant believes in our Belgian management and team and support them as they continue to play a crucial role in the global development of stem cell technology. It really goes to show the strength of the Belgian position in the biotech field.”

Header image: Griet Nuytinck (left) and Jan Spaas (right) courtesy of GST.