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In Greek, the word symansis means ‘signalling’, and it is this use of the term that underpins the business of Symansis (NZ) Ltd, producers of special reagents that indicate whether particular drug compounds are having the desired effect in a cell.

At the moment, the South Canterbury-based company is concentrating on researchers creating drugs to target cancer. Symansis provides an assay that very quickly, within the researcher’s laboratory, can indicate whether the drug is having the desired effect, which usually is to stop what is uncontrolled growth of the cancer cells (a tumour).

The science behind Symansis’ signaling indicators is quite complex, and was originally brought from London to New Zealand by cancer researcher Peter Shepherd, part-owner of the company, and Professor of Cell Signaling at Auckland University’s School of Medical Sciences.

Some of Symansis’ founders, as well as its scientific advisory board are still UK, along with a USA-based director. The private company kicked off in earnest in early 2008, which was about the time managing director Peter Foster was brought into the company. Foster’s background is in medical diagnostic testing as well as turning university ideas into commercial reality.

The reagents that form the assays are collected from sheep, which produce an immunological antibody response to the stimulants that they’re given. New Zealand’s worldwide reputation as a country that free of diseases such as scrapie and other highly infectious animal diseases is a key advantage from a guaranteed free of pathogens perspective.

Foster says most of Symansis’ intellectual property protection is based on knowhow. “That’s because we have a deliberately simple technology that is not patentable,” he says. “What’s unique are the reagents and the way we do it.”

After injecting sheep with its secret stimulants, Symansis’ collection and purification process means it produces reagents that nobody else does. The antibodies in the assay are very specific, and provide a fast, accurate and comparatively cheap means for researchers to ascertain whether the drugs they’re testing are doing what they hope they’re meant to. It is a much quicker way to screen drugs and understand their effect on cancer cells.

The strong science background of the company’s founders, excellent scientific data on Symansis’ assays, and well-developed links into the research community has made the U.S.A a natural first point of entry for the company, as it has the biggest market potential.

“We’re selling to scientists, and they know what they want. It’s a very technical sell,” says Foster. As well as stocking the assay in America, providing deliveries within 24 hours, the company also sells direct via its website.

As one of 10 finalists in the University of Auckland Business School’s Entrepreneur’s Challenge for 2010, Foster says Symansis is “not too far away from being cashflow positive”. It launched some key products in January and April of this year, and has concentrated on providing them to key science experts to trial and publish scientific papers on the assays.

“Testing and publication are key for us,” Foster says, “and it provides something independent that we can refer to.”

He hopes that opinions, from scientists not directly connected to Symansis, will provide a springboard to increased sales.

At this stage Foster is confident the company will be cashflow positive by the first half of next year, and he expects Symansis to significantly profitable within a couple of years.

The company’s offer will also be greatly expanded within this timeframe. Its present assays measure 10 activated or switched on areas within a cell; “but we want to get to 40,” he says. “That will take a lot of R&D.”

Symansis will also broaden its assays for use beyond cancer cells, with both diabetes and stem cells being targeted as other uses for its signaling confirmation.

Within five years, its product range will be even larger, and may also involve cancer diagnostics using the same signaling technologies. In particular, this will increasingly be down the personalised medicines path, as researchers discover when particular drugs do, or don’t, suit particular individuals.

The company has no particular need to shift base from New Zealand, particularly as the sheep that produce the reagents are located here. Symansis has also built up considerable collaborative research with a range of New Zealand universities, and this too adds strength to the company’s scientific integrity Foster says.

In the meantime, Symansis is recruiting local people, and teaching them new skills he says, “and we’ll continue to provide the means for drug discovery companies to do their jobs quicker and better.”

Specialised signaling tests provide quicker and better tool for cancer researchers

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