The word virus conjures up visions of something nasty and harmful, but those produced and sold by Oxford Expression Technologies are not only harmless, but used to discover new drugs. The Latin word virus means a small infectious agent that can replicate only in the cells of other organisms.

OET’s technology employs baculoviruses, large rod-shaped viruses found in insects like moths. These baculoviruses are the basis for the production of proteins and it is the proteins that researchers will take and modify in their quest for new treatments.

The company also markets what are termed vectors, the template for the creation of proteins.

The high throughput system used by OET is called flashBAC.

The company’s origins date back to the 1990s, when husband and wife, Professors Bob Possee and Linda King, were offering consultancy services as well as pursuing their academic careers.

From this came the realisation that the technology they had researched had a commercial value and could be sold as kits.

OET was formed in 2000 and in 2008, was spun out of Oxford Brookes University, where Prof King is still Professor of Virology and Dean of the School of Life Sciences.

Unusually, the company has premises inside the university at Brookes’ Gypsy Lane campus, right alongside the insect research laboratories.

Technical sales manager Dr Richard Broadhead said: “In the long run, we’ll have to move as we expand, but it does allow us active collaboration with the Brookes’ research labs.

“And it’s a commercial set-up — we hire the space from Brookes. It maintains a healthy interest in what we do and the university is also a shareholder in OET.”

One of the original viruses used in flashBAC came from the moth as it hatches from its larva and becomes a caterpillar.

Bursting from the larva excretes the virus onto the leaf, where another caterpillar picks it up and the whole process begins again. This virus is completely harmless to humans.

The major problem in using the virus to create proteins or vectors was that it involved a long, complicated and expensive process taking a minimum of two weeks. There were many steps, including screening and testing, and as is often the case, time is money.

The patented flashBAC technology reduces weeks to a couple of days, is 100 per cent efficient, obviates screening and testing and a once multiple process is now a one-step procedure; an automated system allows viruses to be grown in cell culture.

OET can offer both a standard library of vectors, or a custom service providing recombinant viruses, proteins and cell cultures.

Standard kits are available off the shelf and despatched the same day. The kits are very robust and not temperature-sensitive, so require no special measures, like dry ice.

While the advice is to store the kits in a refrigerator to prolong their life, they will last some time at room temperature.

Dr Broadhead said: “What users must not do is freeze them as it tears the DNA.”

A robust quality control system and high standards of customer service ensure an enviable 80 per cent return customer rate.

While sales initially began to academia, now the orders flow in from universities and commercial organisations alike.

Customers are worldwide, with particularly strong demand from the USA and Australia. Most orders come direct to the Oxford base, but OET has distributors in Japan, Australia and the USA.

“We’re still a small company and the key is getting ourselves known,” Dr Broadhead said.

This is achieved by a mix of researching what companies are doing and approaching them direct, combined with exhibiting at trade shows across the globe.

OET attended BioEurope in Vienna in autumn 2009, a trip that more than paid for itself.

Dr Broadhead said: “The trick is to see who’s attending and book meetings with them in advance.”

Partnering events are another important weapon in the OET armoury. Dr Broadhead has returned from just such a meeting in Barcelona.

“This kind of thing allows us to make contact with others like ourselves looking to make themselves known. We want to know what’s going on and set up collaborations too, especially with drug discovery companies.”

The next generation of products bear the acronym of VLPs or virus-like particles. VLPs exhibit the external characteristics of a virus, but have no DNA inside them. They are the nearest copies of what the human body would see if attacked by a virus.

VLPs will be used to design the vaccines of the future.

Profitable and self-sustaining, OET has grown rapidly and maintained that growth, despite the recession. Systems are being developed still further and the company supports a highly active research and development programme.

Currently with five staff, expansion is planned and more are to be recruited.

Dr Broadhead said: “We may be small now, but there’s lots on the horizon and plenty of growth yet to come.”

Oxford Expression Technologies Established: 2008

Chief executive: Tim Bernard Number of staff: Five Annual turnover: Confidential

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