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Ikan Biotech, the Navarrese company that fights cancer with zebrafish

With the first part of their project completed and the good results endorsing Ikan Biotech, the next step that both Rubén and Roberto considered was to internationalize this platform. Thus, the solution was proposed in the form of an algorithm and a new three-way union between other scientific institutions such as Navarrabiomed and the University of Navarra.



It is barely 30 square meters, but in Navarra, there is a small tropical paradise with a constant temperature of around 28ºC. Whether it is hot or cold outside. That is the animal house of Ikan Biotech, a family biotechnology company based in the European Business and Innovation Center of Navarra (CEIN), which has turned the zebrafish (Danio Rerio) into the ‘perfect’ ally in the battle against colon cancer.

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Two people are in charge of the Navarre-based company Ikan Biotech

At the head of this startup with international projection are two cousins from Navarre. While Roberto was the one who contributed, five and a half years ago now, the knowledge in this vertebrate and its application in the world of biotechnology; Rubén put the numbers on the table to manage the financial and strategic part of this company.

“Roberto did his doctorate at Rockefeller University (United States) and there he learned to use the zebrafish experimentation model to evaluate new treatments to be launched on the market,” said Rubén Díez, CEO of Ikan Biotech.

Zebrafish, which originated in India and are very common, have been used in academic research since the 1970s, since “they share 87% of the genes of human beings,” added Díez.

The similarity between zebrafish and human genotypes allows a detailed study of some bacterial infections, heart diseases, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or muscular dystrophy.

With this data, both presented a revolutionary project to Europe in which, through a sample obtained from a biopsy of a colon cancer patient, tumor cells are introduced (xenotransplantation) in several zebrafish to which different anticancer treatments are subsequently applied in order to know their evolution.

In this way, being able to evaluate the toxicity and effectiveness of a drug with a certain speed and at a much lower cost illuminated the way for these two entrepreneurs who did not hesitate to seek their niche as experts in this biotechnology sector in Navarra, driven, in part, by European funding of more than two million euros.

“To do it with mice you need another type of infrastructure that has a higher maintenance cost and, in the end, has an impact on the final cost of the research,” says Rubén Díez. But it is not only a question of money.

A technician in the Ikan Biotech laboratory prepares the equipment needed to perform the microinjections in zebrafish. Most of these studies are performed statistically, i.e. data are extrapolated from a more or less small sample as in the case of mice.

However, with zebrafish the selection can be much larger and a “more fine-tuned” result can be achieved. In fact, at Ikan Biotech they have the capacity to generate about 3,000 eggs per day.

Microinjection of tumor cells into zebrafish offers an efficient tumor model system for designing and testing the efficacy of potential drugs for cancer treatment. The other strong point has to do with the time until the results are obtained and that in the case of a person affected by cancer is decisive in guaranteeing survival.

“It is not very close to the needs of a patient that you tell him the results of his treatment in 5 or 6 months when the stage of the cancer is already very advanced. In our case, we can do it in 3 weeks,” says the CEO of Ikan Biotech.

Personalized medicine is already making its mark in the present. Its philosophy is based on treating each patient individually and, today, there are many improvements in this regard.

“We treat each person differently, characterizing their samples to identify what can or cannot be given to them because each patient has his or her particularities,” explained Rubén Díez.

This is carried out by a team of eleven people -most of them scientific staff- who work in the different laboratories and the animal facility in these facilities of just over 350 square meters in Noáin, living, like everyone else, with the health crisis of the coronavirus.

The Ikan Biotech team consists of eleven people working in the facilities located in the European Business and Innovation Center of Navarra

“We have noticed that with the pandemic people have realized how important the role of biotechnology is in providing solutions,” stressed the CEO of Ikan Biotech, who also points out that the coronavirus has increased interest in some health-related companies.

“Now we value health more, which is for life, and we have seen how important it is to continue in these research phases to improve people’s health situation, and that is noticeable in investors,” he points out.

Ikan Biotech plans to take the leap to internationalize their platform

With the first part of their project completed and the good results endorsing this Navarre-based company, the next step that both Rubén and Roberto considered was to internationalize this platform.

“The problem we had was that we had to be close to the hospitals to receive the biopsies within a maximum of 24 hours, since the tissue has to be fresh,” he adds. However, it was not feasible to put one of its laboratories in every hospital that requested it.

Thus, the solution was proposed in the form of an algorithm and a new three-way union between other scientific institutions such as Navarrabiomed and the University of Navarra.

In this way, this triad is developing a combination that makes it possible to read from anywhere in the world the data that Ikan Biotech is obtaining from biopsies in order to know how a treatment will affect a patient.

“For example, an oncologist at a hospital in Boston will be able to access a database where he can enter different variables and see the results we have had with our animal model,” emphasizes the CEO of the biotech company from Navarra.

The tool has already had its first contacts with the United States, through potential hospitals, but it may not be finished until May next year, since it needs to be validated as a medical device by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and its U.S. counterpart, the FDA. A regulatory phase that takes time.

“Our future is focused on the oncology sector because we believe it is our forte,” acknowledged Rubén Díez who also reveals that this Navarre-based company’s commitment to developing its own anti-tumor treatments.

“We are in talks with research centers because our idea is not only to create this platform for evaluating existing drugs, but also to contribute our own products.”

Navarre has always been committed to innovation as an engine for development and this has been possible, acknowledges the CEO of Ikan Biotech, because “there is a strong culture of innovation” within the region’s borders. The same goes for research, “although there is still a lot of work to be done.”

For this reason, he asks the institutions to continue supporting these types of companies. “In the end, we are the ones who enrich the techniques that are used in the very good hospitals we have in Navarra. I think it is a firm commitment.”


(Featured image by Kuznetsov_Peter via Pixabay)

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Anthony Donaghue writes about science and technology. Keeping abreast of the latest tech developments in various sectors, he has a keen interest on startups, especially inside and outside of Silicon Valley. From time to time, he also covers agritech and biotech, as well as consumer electronics, IT, AI, and fintech, among others. He has also written about IPOs, cannabis, and investing.

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