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PBD Biotech on how their product Actiphage won the backing of the science community and a Bury Free Press Business Award

Turning the tide has been the government’s go to phrase for handling the coronavirus pandemic - but a Thurston -based firm is helping to do just that with a much longer standing condition: tuberculosis.

PBD Biotech is currently a relatively small operation run from Elm Farm Park, but is on the cusp of a breakthrough for its product Actiphage.

This highly sensitive test can rapidly detect infection in blood or milk within six hours, and can identify tuberculosis (TB), bovine TB and Johne’s disease.

Now with the interest and backing of investors, PBD (Phage-Based Diagnostic) has the ambition to help create a TB-free world and, in Actiphage, the product to do just that.

Last year their achievements were celebrated at the Bury Free Press Business Awards, where they picked up The West Suffolk Award for Innovation.

It was a landmark moment for a company, which came out of a project at the University of Nottingham led by Dr Ben Swift, who is now PBD’s director of research and development.

Bovine TB is estimated to cost companies around £100billion every year. It is also a political headache for the government, with diagnostics heavily tied into EU law. And the problem is also getting worse.

Ben explains: “Traditionally, the detection (for bovine TB) is based on this skin test where you look for this lump and if it comes back positive you have to get rid of the animal. But it is not very sensitive and you miss a lot of animals.

“But the technology we developed is more advanced. There is an immune response to how the cow is reacting to the bacteria. What we care about is if the bacteria is there or not. The bacteria that causes it is very difficult to handle, it takes a long time to grow and it is difficult to detect. The technology we have developed gets around that by using these little viruses called bacteriophages. They go in and leave them open and create a signal for us so we can detect them really quickly and really sensitively.”

PBD Biotech pick up the Innovation Award at last year’s Bury Free Press Business Awards
PBD Biotech pick up the Innovation Award at last year’s Bury Free Press Business Awards

In pursuing his PhD, Ben was able to develop the project and, sensing the potential, was able to take a commercial route and ‘do some good’.

“I am now in a weird position where I have an academic pathway and an industrial pathway,” he says. “So we are commercialising this and also using it to answer questions.”

Ben set up the company alongside Dr Cath Rees, the chief scientific officer, and Dr Berwyn Clarke, who started as chief executive officer.

After Dr Clarke retired, his role was taken by Mark Hammond, who came in with experience of commercial and scientific operations, having run laboratories and developed pharmaceutical tests.

“I had heard about PBD through some farmers and it had huge potential,” Mark said.

“It had potential to be really disruptive in all its applications. It had potential to change millions of peoples’ lives. It has potential for huge application, all of the trials we do show that same potential is there and it is slowly moving it forward.”

“It was crazy,” says Ben. “You learn on the job, it was all very new - you get no training from the PhD on the running business side of things. It’s not the same as doing it - Mark is better at dealing with customers. I am better in the lab!

“We do a lot of presenting, publishing papers, talking to stakeholders, talking to farmers and vets - getting the word out from that sort of angle. PBD has enabled us to talk to more people and we try and talk to the government as much as possible, it is a process. You have to get the message out there.

“We are at trials and we need to get to that next stage of acceptance.”

The operation also consists of Robert Lyons and Dr Luis Martin, respective managing directors for North America and Canada, but it is a relatively small team...at least for now.

With Ben also working in London at the Royal Vet College, a lot of his work has input is made over the phone, but that hasn’t stopped him assisting the transfer to other labs in different countries.

Mark recalls being caught in pouring rain in London while Ben was working in Fiji.

“There was a moment of realisation where I thought things were the wrong way around,” he laughs.

Mark Hammond of PBD Biotech
Mark Hammond of PBD Biotech

Last year, around ten million people were affected by TB and the deficiencies for diagnostics are similarly lacking when it comes to humans. Tests for humans are more up to date, but as Ben explains, they are ‘all trying to do the same thing’.

“A lot of human TB (tests) look for sceutam, which is something you cough up. It is particularly hard with some patients who are unable to produce it - and it is especially hard with a cow. You can’t tell a cow to cough!

“What is novel about ours is that it is a blood test. You can do one shot, process it and detect the organism.”

An achievement so far has been finding TB in patients six months before they showed clinical signs.

“That is huge,” says Ben. “You’re currently treating patients to nine months with antibiotics, but if you can treat them earlier you can treat them earlier and less aggressively. We can also show how antibiotics are working or not.”

Can TB be eradicated?

“We think it can be,” says Ben. “There needs to be a concerted effort from scientists and those in the animal world. Australia eradicated it. Having tools, space and money like this can make a big difference. In humans it is a bit different.

“If you can get rid of the disease, that is the end goal. It may go beyond TB in other directions, it is our focus at the moment. It is always evolving.”

“If you look back to when Ben and Cath first developed the test and saw how TB could be detected in the blood, they were not quite laughed out of the scientific community but not far off it.”

Mark knows PBD Biotech has come a long way since the idea was first pitched. And while there is a long way to go - the company is showing the first signs of starting to make a big change.

“There was a period of education policy makers that this test
really works and is a possibility to do something different,” added Mark.

“In the earlier meetings there was a bit of scepticism, but as we had more data and more meetings, they were coming around to thinking ‘there is something here’.”

As one of the leading events of its kind in west Suffolk, the Bury Free Press Business Awards have provided a platform for many companies to showcase their efforts.

For Mark, it represented a wider recognition of PBD’s work which has helped in their efforts to
attract future collaborators and investment.

“It was fantastic to have the recognition, it helps us in all areas of the business,” said Mark.

“It helps us with marketing. It could help with future investment, while the award also gives potential future scientific collaborators the chance to see there is something behind this.

“It’s not just a piece of paper.”

PBD is currently looking to move to a bigger base beyond their current Thurston location - but such is the reputation for scientists the area now has, the move will now be beyond a fifteen mile radius.

The strength in depth across all award categories was also further proof of west Suffolk’s growing reputation as a great place to work, and to do business.

“The (innovation) award is hotly contested, which is surprising given the size of Bury but not surprising given the location,” Mark added.

“There is some great innovation going on in the area.

“I think it comes down to the location, it is a nice part of the world to be, which is a big tick in the box for starters, but you are close to other centres for excellence. There are a lot of people in the area who come from high tech or scientific background.”

The Bury Free Press Business Awards are set to be be held on March 25. To find out more, click here.