Oxford Expression Technologies featured in this column exactly a year ago. The company, based at Oxford Brookes University, develops and produces harmless viruses that are used to discover new drugs. Now it has linked with a Dutch company to offer a major improvement to its services.

OET’s origins date from 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.

OET’s technology employs baculoviruses, large rod-shaped viruses to be found in insects like moths.

These baculoviruses are the basis for the production of proteins and it is these 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.

Now OET has joined forces with ProteoNic of Leiden in the Netherlands to offer a superior platform and services.

This is a growing trend among smaller companies, leveraging greater strength by combining complementary technologies.

FlashBAC removes components that degrade the protein, making it more stable and enhancing shelf life.

ProteoNic’s technology is called Unic — it works on what are termed promoters and enhancers to substantially increase the yield of proteins. These increases in volume are up to ten-fold.

Dr Richard Broadhead, sales and marketing manager for OET, explained: “This isn’t a merger, it’s a collaboration, combining two complementary areas of expertise.

“For many of our clients, we provide a custom-designed service, so speed of response is important. If we can produce higher volumes of protein faster, that is responding to our customer need.

“ProteoNic has no experience of baculovirus, so that has been gained from us, along with more stable proteins into the bargain.”

OET’s customer base is broad, from academia to big pharma. ProteoNic’s customer base is not dissimilar, although more focused on academia, but is not the same as OET’s. As a result, the two bases are also complementary and not competing.

In the last year, OET has been strengthening its client portfolio, particularly with smaller and medium sized companies, but also with larger pharma and agri-biotechnology organisations.

“Regardless of company size, budgets are much tighter these days,” said Dr Broadhead.

“They like to outsource specialist areas because they know they will be buying a quality product and one that will cost them far less than trying to do it themselves. Plus the speed of decision-making in these smaller outfits is far quicker.”

Big pharma is once again in the process of downsizing research facilities. Pfizer in Sandwich, Kent, is closing with the loss of 2,500 jobs; Novartis is to shed 450 jobs at its Horsham facility and Astra Zeneca at Charnwood in Leicestershire is to close, making 1,200 staff redundant.

Fortunately, these have not had a negative impact on OET’s business.

ProteoNic is an academic spinout from the University of Leiden. Its products are used in pharmaceutical, industrial and agricultural applications.

Like new partner OET, ProteoNic offers custom-made products to its clients. In 2010, the team won the Best Practices category in the European Food Enzymes Technology Innovation Awards.

OET’s expansion during 2010 has been significant. From a standing start three years ago, the company is now profitable. Its distributor network has been widened and a new salesman recruited. The product range is continually expanding, and the latest offering, BaculoFECTIN, is selling well.

A new development is novel vaccines, a product which strengthens the existing range.

The vaccines copy the outer shell of the virus being targeted, but there is no DNA to allow the virus to replicate. This offers an ideal platform to create vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, OET is fast outgrowing its current premises and has plans to move elsewhere in Oxford in the near future. Growth and increased profitability are top of the agenda. As part of its marketing strategy, OET managers attend partnering meetings and events.

Dr Broadhead has just returned from presenting at Bio Europe Spring in Milan and was delighted with the success achieved.

He said: “This collaboration with ProteoNic is the first in a series. Over the next six-12 months, we will be announcing several more. For a small company like ours, it’s the way to go.”