“We will develop organoid-based new medicines and realize customized precision medicine.”
Hong Jun-ho, vice president at the Planning and Coordination Head Office of the Interpark’s Bio-Convergence Center, said so in a recent interview with Korea Biomedical Review.
|Hong Jun-ho, vice president at the Planning and Coordination Head Office of the Interpark’s Bio-Convergence Center, speaks in an interview with Korea Biomedical Review.|
Interpark, Korea’s first online shopping mall and a popular e-commerce operator, picked organoids as a next-generation growth engine and is focusing on R&D in organoids. After acquiring drug distributor Anyeon Care in 2014, Interpark entered the healthcare industry.
Organoids are miniaturized organs (or mini-organs, pseudo-organs) through three-dimensional cultures or recombination of stem cells. They are expected to help develop new drugs and similar organs more effectively. Some predict that organoids will be the pinnacle of realizing precision medicine as they could be customized for drugs and patients.
Experts are talking about such anticipations and expectations in the future tense. Despite the high probability, it is still unknown whether organoids will lead to new drugs.
Interpark is investing billions of won a year in the potentials of organoids, however.
“This is because our group and management have a faith that organoids will change the world.”
Hong said Interpark Holdings Chairman Lee Ki-hyung has been holding science lectures every year at the Kaos Foundation, which Lee established in 2014 to share and promote the knowledge of science.
One of the themes of the lectures was organoids, and Lee paid attention to the potential and value of organoids, Hong said.
In April 2017, the company established Interpark Bio-Convergence Center. Hong joined the institute in 2018, managing it and creating visions for it.
“I believe we have secured organoids technologies that could par with those of the world's leading companies. But we’re not in the stage of commercialization. We are at the initial stage of making them into business, based on our technological grounds,” Hong said.
After opening Interpark Bio-Convergence Center in April 2017, Interpark also launched a joint precision medicine research organization jointly with the Yonsei University Health System in November 2018.
In December, the center appointed Dr. Koo Bon-kyung at Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) as an advisory professor. Koo is one of the leading scholars in organoids, studying genetic manipulations through organoids at IMBA.
In the same month, Bio-Convergence Center also made a license agreement with the Netherlands’ Hubrecht Organoid Technology (HUB) for the patent that uses organoid technology and technology transfer. Hans Clevers, chief scientific officer of HUB, developed an organoid culture method using adult stem cells for the first time in the world.
Hong said that the center plans to use organoid technologies for three purposes -- discovering and verifying new drug candidates, developing innovative medicines, and promoting regenerative medicine.
Organoids are said to be suitable for cancer research because they can mature candidate substances shorter than before for new drug development. Using organoids allow researchers to measure drug response in real-time.
Taking advantage of these features, Interpark plans to discover and develop anticancer drug candidates, Hong said.
To achieve the goal, the Bio-Convergence Center is collaborating with researchers at Severance Hospital to build organoid gene panels related to lung cancer and gastric cancer.
By using gene panels, the center aims to provide customized diagnosis services to help cancer patients find the right anticancer treatment.
The center aims to build 150 gene panels in gastric cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer in the next three years. At the same time, it is preparing a separate team for new drug development.
However, the center has no clear answer where it could use organoids. This means the center needs continuous research and investment.
To culture stem cells in three dimensions, researchers need biomaterial scaffolds and culture solutions. However, culture solutions cost over 5 million won per 1 gram. Matrigel, the most common scaffold for organoid development, is also expensive, and Korea has to depend on imports.
Hong said the center is pushing for the “localization” of biomaterial scaffolds through a joint study to resolve the problem of high costs.
“Developing a Korean-made scaffold will enhance the competitiveness of Interpark’s organoid research. Also, it has sufficient potential to make profits,” he said.
Organoid development requires an astronomical investment. Interpark is investing 4-5 billion won a year in the research center.
|The research lab inside the Bio-Convergence Center in southern Seoul|
Hong noted that Interpark does not plan to receive outside funding.
As the company’s organoid work is at infancy, the company is trying to delay the funding as much as possible, he said.
“If we are sure enough and enter a phase-3 trial, not pre-trial or phase-1 study, we can consider getting investment from outside. But for now, the management wants to focus on self-development,” Hong said.
He went on to say that Interpark was not so much interested in government projects for organoid development.
Because organoids need long-term and massive investment, the company will not take a government project that has a different research purpose, he said.
Hong was confident that Interpark was leading the technology in organoid development. However, the company might consider taking opportunities for regenerative medicine research, as a single firm’s research will not be easy in the area, he said.
“In areas except for regenerative medicine, I believe we should focus on what we can do well.”
Hong said Interpark would continue to collaborate with other research labs and institutions for open innovation, and that it was mulling an M&A and investment in the biopharmaceutical sector.
He called Interpak’s organoid development “an audacious challenge.”
“You can’t expect results from one-year or two-years of research in organoids. It is a business you can’t do unless you have the calling for enhancing the public health. This is possible for us because Interpark seeks an audacious challenge,” Hong added.
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