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The French pharma giant Sanofi has taken over the VUB spin-off Ablynx for €3.9 billion. In doing so, it trumps its rival Novo Nordisk. The biotechnology company Ablynx does ground-breaking research into nanobodies, antibodies against pathogenic viruses and bacteria. These antibodies come from llamas, and how it came to that is quite a story in itself, which appeared in the Belgian-Flemish broadsheet, De Standaard (link in Dutch only: de weekendbijlage van De Standaard). Below, is a summary of it.
At the start of the adventure we find three VUB scientists: Raymond Hamers, his wife Cécile Casterman and Serge Muyldermans. By chance, back in 1989, they discovered a new antibody in the blood of a dromedary, that was much smaller and simpler than the antibodies known until then. They were looking at a blood sample from a dromedary because at the time the group of biology students who attended the class, refused to check human blood samples – it was the start and height of HIV, and they were worried. Hamers remembered he had the dromedary blood in stock somewhere so the students got to work on that. When looking at the results of their work, Hamers couldn’t believe what he saw: the antibodies were much smaller than the classic ones.
Looking for camel blood
Serge Muyldermans at that time was assistant to Hamers, and he remembers Hamers wanted to know the cause behind the results. Via a lab assistant of Moroccan descent, who used to commute back and forth between Brussels and Morocco for a year, they managed to get new samples of dromedary blood. A difficult and time-consuming process, which they eventually solved by buying llamas and bringing them to Belgium. Just like dromedaries, camels and alpacas, llamas possessed similar antibodies.
From MatchX to Ablynx
From then on things start to go more smoothly. And from 1996, when the newly established Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) took on the research and funding, things became easier. A few VUB colleagues joined in on the work and the organisation got a name: MatchX. In 2001, VIB eventually set up a company, together with some investors, and Ablynx was born.
The rest, as they say, is history. Albynx in no time becomes a major player, but the originators of the story eventually disappear, one by one: Raymond Hamers retired, and Muyldermans also disappeared from sight.
However, the two still receive an inventor’s fee each time VIB sells Ablynx shares. And Muyldermans bought shares at the IPO of Ablynx. They are now worth a lot more. Too right, for someone who was at the origin of a success story.