With the gradual improvement of the COVID-19 situation in China in the past few days, along with a worsening situation across many regions, research on vaccines and related antiviral drugs has become a key issue for most people both inside and outside the life science research industry.
However, the vaccine research and development (R&D) process is long and complex, especially considering the need for drugs to undergo time-consuming clinical trials. A large number of animal models are urgently needed to verify the efficacy and safety of new compounds before human trials. As an upstream industry for vaccine and drug R&D, what kind of effects will this pandemic have on the animal model field and associated life science research? We explore this issue in-depth with our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Marvin Ouyang.
Dr. Marvin Ouyang
Executive VP and Chief Scientific Officer, Cyagen US Inc
Dr. Marvin Ouyang has been dedicated to the development of genetically engineered rodent models for the past 20 years. Prior to Cyagen, Dr. Ouyang was the senior scientist of the Oklahoma medical research foundation and the Thios Biopharmaceutics, and the director of molecular biology at Taconic Biosciences. During his postdoctoral research, he generated and developed thousands of transgenic and knockout (KO)/knockin (KI)/rat models for biomedical research and drug development. And he has multiple publications in high-impact academic journals (such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Journal of Clinical Investigation), his technical services are directly cited hundreds of times by some of the world's leading multidisciplinary science journals, including Nature.
While the epidemic situation of COVID-19 in China has been improving in recent days, the outbreak has continued to spread throughout the world. Currently, there are significant research efforts focused on developing related vaccines and drugs. According to the WHO, more than 20 types of COVID-19 vaccines are being developed, with some of them already undergoing animal trials. Several mouse models support replication of SARS-CoV-2, including: BALB/c, C57BL/6, 129SvEv, STA1 gene knockout (KO), and hACE2 transgenic; select mouse models even develop some symptoms of pneumonia, similar to that seen in humans.
Q: What is the current situation regarding the supply of mouse models related to this novel coronavirus disease? Will the current capacity of the research industry be enough to meet the short-term demand increase?
A: Overall, the market demand for novel coronavirus-related mouse models is increasing - especially for humanized ACE2 (hACE2) mice. However, the current supply is limited, as nearly all experimental animal service providers do not have ready-made populations to meet the sudden increase in demand.
Due to the epidemic, many scientific research institutions cannot operate normally. Although there has been a large number of new orders for the hACE2 model in a short period of time, it is far from enough for the industry recover from the damage caused by the ongoing funding cuts & subsequent closings of scientific research institutions in colleges and universities.
Generally speaking, in the short term, the epidemic will have a negative impact on the research animal model industry. However, in the long term, governments and scientific research institutions in various countries are bound to increase research investments in treatments and vaccines against infectious diseases like COVID-19, which bodes well for the growth of the animal model industry to support effective drug development.
Q: Will the use of genetically modified (i.e. knockout, transgenic, etc.) mice in researching this epidemic promote awareness among ordinary researchers on animal model applications? How do you anticipate for the expanding cognizance about research animal models and related services to impact the industry?
A: Although knockout/transgenic mice have long played an indispensable role in clinical medicine research and new drug development, until now, their applications in vaccine research and infectious disease treatment have been seriously ignored.
In the last century, both the invention and wide application of antibiotics and vaccines has shifted the main causes of human death from severe infectious diseases to cardiovascular diseases and cancer - similarly changing the focus of medical research. Therefore, the vast majority of genetically engineered animal disease models focus on these noncommunicable diseases. Comparatively speaking, researchers pay less attention to the application of genetically engineered mice in vaccine research and infectious disease treatment.
After the outbreak of the COVID-19, people have come to fully realize the threat of sudden infectious diseases to human health and the potential implications to our entire society. The research of basic pathogenic medicine, vaccines, and treatment methods will become a focus of biomedical research, subsequently increasing the demand of related genetically engineered model animals.
In fact, in a short period of just over one month, we have received the inquiries from hundreds of research units around the world about the need for mice with humanized ACE2 (hACE2) - the host receptor targeted by SARS-CoV-2 - and we have also shared expert reviews on related topics. It is expected that by April, we can provide a series of genetically engineered mouse models, such as hACE2, to assist in developing vaccines and antiviral drugs.
It is believed that once the outbreak is under control, there will be a global movement to strengthen the research on sudden infectious diseases, likewise expanding the prevalence of genetically engineered model animals.
Q: On February 25th, 2020, Cyagen Biosciences Suzhou Inc. completed Series B financing totaling 285 million yuan. Do you think that after the outbreak of COVID-19, investors will increase their investment in the model animal industry? How should enterprises in the industry adjust their customer service & marketing strategies to accommodate the changing market?
A: This outbreak has greatly boosted the fields performing coronavirus research, exemplified by the numerous clinical diagnostic reagents, vaccine R&D, and drug R&D enterprises currently underway. Accordingly, the model animal industry, as a provider for the previously-noted research efforts, will also benefit from this, making investors more optimistic about the development prospects of the model animal industry.
Enterprises in the industry should quickly respond to the current situation, actively develop models related to coronavirus, and prioritize production capacity to meet the fast-growing market demand - turning crisis into an opportunity to serve the global prevention & treatment effort.
Q: Through this epidemic, governments worldwide will pay more attention to the scientific research field. Do you think that the government will take corresponding measures to support the development of Chinese enterprises in the industry of model animals? Or will there be any policies supporting the middle and downstream industry chains related to the research animal model industry, such as vaccine- and drug-related R&D, so as to promote the development of the animal model industry?
A: I believe so. All levels of the Chinese government have been responding rapidly to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The National natural science foundation of China, the ministry of science & technology, as well as provincial and municipal governments have all set up special funds to quickly launch a number of scientific research projects to support researchers to conduct basic and prospective joint research on major scientific issues related to the etiology, epidemiology, pathogenesis, disease prevention, and treatment of novel coronavirus infections.
These funding measures aim to make full use of the advanced scientific research forces (including universities) to arm ourselves with scientific and technological knowledge to win the battle of epidemic prevention and control. Research continues to progress further than ever thanks to the convergence of disciplines and the promotion of technology. The investment of these research funds is bound to bring about the rapid development of related industries, thus promoting the development of model animal industry.
Q: The genetically modified animal model industry has high barriers to entry, with established providers having great development potential. In China, there are only few enterprises operating on a large scale. Do you think there will be more enterprises to join the field after this epidemic? What is the significance of current trends towards product diversification and innovation in the future of the industry?
A: I think the possibility (for new providers to enter the industry) is low. At present, the genetically modified animal model industry in China has been relatively stable. Approximately 90% of the market share have been occupied by several key enterprises, so other small or start-ups company are hard-pressed to earn opportunities in this matured industry. Of course, we cannot exclude the possibility that some organizations with innovative capabilities and unique products can get the chance to survive and grow in this fiercely-competitive market.