The AKS-452 vaccine from Akston Biosciences (Beverly, Massachusets, USA) may become the fifth or sixth vaccine against COVID-19, and the UMCG will study its efficacy. The operation is being coordinated by Groningen-based TRACER, which has quickly gained a solid reputation in the field of drug development.
Go van Dam, one of TRACER's two directors and his marketing and communications colleague Tessa Aminetzah sit demurely beaming as they talk about the research. This project shows that TRACER is firmly on the international map, as the drug developers are well established with global manufacturers.
Northern Netherlands thorough and fast
''The whole course also fits well in the Northern Netherlands,'' Go van Dam believes. With a catchment area of 5 million people, the UMCG has the size for this kind of study, he explains. ''The accessibility is good, we are thorough and we can handle the process relatively quickly. The Netherlands does damn well when it comes to healthcare, we're in the top 3-4 in the world. We are also reliable.'' Tessa Aminetzah adds: ''The Netherlands is the country for clinical research. We do excellent quality work.''
Van Dam was a surgeon oncologist (gastrointestinal) in a previous career and during his training already developed an interest in the so-called molecular imaging techniques, which can be used to smoothly test the drug's effect. It was the basis for the later career-start with TRACER, which visualizes the effect at an early stage of the drug development process. This allows customers to make quick strategic decisions based on accurate image data of the drug in humans.
Vaccine lights up in body
Go van Dam was already applying the technique as a surgeon, because it was possible to illuminate tumors with fluorescent techniques. Van Dam then knew exactly how to cut; visual certainty, he calls it. But that effectiveness can also be achieved with drugs, because if they are made fluorescent they can be traced in the body. Van Dam: ,,So you also know faster whether a drug in development is going to work well or not.''
TRACER is managing the study of the AKS-452 vaccine and has deployed it at UMCG. The purpose of the study is to test safety, tolerability (comfort) and immune system response. The UMCG will use 176 healthy volunteers aged between 18 and 65 years for this purpose, who will be vaccinated with the candidate vaccine.
Everything within biking distance
Akston Biosciences' vaccine does not use the actual coronavirus to build immunity with it. The vaccine consists of a protein portion of the coronavirus coupled to a protein fragment of a human antibody. This activates the human immune system. ''We can research very quickly and safely,'' Van Dam says. ''We also do it smarter.''
And he once again specifies the advantages of the North. ''The ecosystem takes place here within cycling distance,'' he echoes. ''That is enormously practical. Another advantage: in America the companies are very competitive, here there is good cooperation. You find each other easily. That provides another advantage. Because it is so well organized here that you always run into each other. As a result, you never take each other by the nose.
As many as 1 billion vaccines
The Akston vaccine differs from those already available because it can be produced quickly in large quantities. ''By August 1, something like 1 billion vaccines can be produced,'' Van Dam knows. ''And it's easy to store. It can just be in the kitchen cabinet.''
It can therefore be applied in very many southern countries on the globe as well. Van Dam: ,,Some 16 billion people in total need to be vaccinated, so you have to include the southern hemisphere. Because if you skip a few countries, you keep COVID active.''
'Excelling here in professional environment'
''Do you know what the great thing about this assignment is?'' asks Jens Ruesink of the NOM. ''That is that TRACER can serve large international clients because we have a few strong parties in the North that know how to find each other and don't shy away from cooperation.'' Investment manager Ruesink-the NOM participates in TRACER-means parties such as PRA and Symeres (former Syncom). ''You have choice in the North and in our cluster you can tackle these kinds of projects together.''
Ruesink thinks TRACER is a special company, partly because Go van Dam threw aside the surgical tools as a doctor and co-founded TRACER with Ari Aminetzah. ''They have the right feelers, as entrepreneurs,'' says the investment manager. ''TRACER has clients worldwide but stays in the northern Netherlands. Here they can excel in a professional environment. There is no reason to ever leave.''