The Cure fan who joined the search for a COVID-19 vaccine

Luina Bio researchers in the laboratory. Courtesy Luina Bio.

Ask Luina Bio CEO Les Tillack his favourite music — and he says 80s iconic Goth band The Cure.

Which is kind of apt for a guy who has just signed up to take on one of the most important jobs in the world right now — developing a vaccine for COVID-19.

Luina Bio will work with the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD).

In Queensland, there are two research teams working around the clock to find a vaccine for COVID-19. The University of Queensland vaccine team and there’s the GRIDD team, based at Griffith University.

The GRIDD research team is taking a different approach to the UQ team — its approach is based on a synthetic version of the virus. They’ve created a version of the virus in the lab that they can manipulate much easier than a real version of the virus. This means the team can select those components of the virus that cause illness and from that, precision-engineer potential vaccines.

The reason Luina Bio has skin in the game is because it is only one of two contract biopharmaceutical manufacturing facilities in Australia, specialising in manufacturing high-tech experimental drugs for human clinical trials. The other — Patheon Biologics Australia — is also based in Brisbane. Luina Bio’s clients are generally drug development and pharmaceutical companies in the process of developing new products.

Luina Bio has the specific expertise and technology that GRIDD are looking for. The fact that the company is Brisbane-based is a huge bonus — meaning the scientists don’t have to go overseas. They can have manufactured what they need here. Which just goes to show how dynamic Queensland’s medical science sector is these days.

The company will work with the GRIDD team to manufacture pilot vaccine candidates ready for pre-clinical and clinical testing.

In fact, Les believes, if they can pull this off, and the vaccine proves successful in human trials, Luina Bio has the capacity to manufacture enough vaccine to immunise everybody in Australia.

Speaking to Les, we found out his favourite movie of all time is Neil Gaiman’s Stardust ­– “who doesn’t love Claire Danes and Robert De Niro,” Les says, “such a happy movie, the world needs more happiness, especially these days”.

And perhaps we need more of The Cure as well.

Who doesn’t like ‘Love Cats’, ‘Close to Me’, and ‘Friday, I’m in love’?

Les — can you tell me a bit about yourself — your background?

Born and bred in Brisbane. I spent many years at the University of Queensland coming away with a BSc in Microbiology and a BE in Chemical Engineering. I worked for Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology for 11 years during University. After Uni I did a stint at the Queensland Department Primary Industries Animal Research Institute. I finally got my dream job in 1996 working in microbial fermentation at what was then Progen Industries — one of the early Brisbane biotechnology companies.

Why did you decide to set up your company?

I started at Progen in 1996 as a fermentation engineer manufacturing biopharmaceutical products, eventually becoming the Operations Manager. Ten years later the opportunity came up to purchase the manufacturing division of Progen through a management buyout. I participated in that buyout, becoming the Managing Director. We re-branded at the same time and Luina Bio was born from the ashes of Progen.

Why Queensland? What was the attraction here?

That’s where the existing business was located. And seriously where else would you want to live?

Luina Bio CEO Les Tillack. Courtesy Luina Bio.

How have you grown?

I started 25 years ago as a Junior Fermentation Engineer after being in and around laboratories all of my life. Both of my parents were scientists so I guess it never occurred to me to do anything else. I graduated in the middle of the recession ‘we had to have’ and it took four years to get a job using my engineering qualification. I started at Progen and I loved it. We were doing amazing things with a tiny number of staff. Sixty hour weeks were pretty standard back then.

I guess I am in the same place as I started just doing different things. I often ask myself why so long in the one place and the answer is that I was always able to learn new things so the job never became boring.

What’s on the cards next?

The future is all about growth and expansion of Luina Bio and there hasn’t been time to think about what’s next.

How many staff do you employ?

Four years ago, at the time of the buy-out we had 12 staff. Today we have 92 employees and recruiting more. Revenue is going to be around 10 times higher this year than 4 years ago.

Are you looking at expansion?

We are currently planning our expansion with the building of a new manufacturing facility to be based here in Brisbane. The new facility will be around six times larger than our current one and will employ 400 to 500 staff.

Being based in Brisbane, has this being in any way a challenge for you as a business, particularly in dealing with overseas and national investors and customers?

Being based in Brisbane is of course a challenge. Our customers generally come from overseas and convincing them to come to Australia is our first hurdle. However, the ease (well maybe a bit harder at the moment) of international travel and the quality and availability of video conferencing makes it a pretty low hurdle. We concentrate on being very good at what we do and the customers come.

Can you tell me how you became involved in the GRIDD vaccine project?

We were approached by Professor Bernd Rehm from Griffith Uni to see if we would be able to manufacture his vaccine candidate for COVID-19. We immediately saw the potential of the vaccine and wanted to help in any way that we could

How important is this project?

I think that the project is vitally important. While there are a large number of vaccine candidates in development, the reality is that most will fail. The more the merrier I say. However, the biggest reason that this vaccine candidate is important is the potentially lower cost of goods for manufacture. The price to manufacture could be as low as 10 per cent of the cost of other vaccine candidates.

What role will Luina Bio play?

Luina Bio will tweak the manufacturing process to make it suitable for scale up and make sure that it can be manufactured under Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) conditions. We will then manufacture the vaccine for use in human clinical trials. GMP is the standard in medical manufacturing, ensuring high-quality products that the public can trust.

How does the GRIDD project differ from the UQ vaccine project?

This is where we get a bit techie — the GRIDD vaccine uses a bacterial expression system rather than the mammalian cell expression system used at UQ. The fermentation is very short and the purification of the vaccine is easy. We expect that it will take 3–4 days to manufacture each batch of vaccine.

If this works, what will it mean for the company? For Queensland?

If the vaccine is successful it will put us along with Griffith Uni and Queensland on the map. However, the main significance will be being part of a solution to the global pandemic. The low cost and relative ease of manufacture means that the vaccine would be suitable for the developing world, not just richer nations.

Do you think Queensland has strong clinical trials capability?

Everything you need for clinical trials is here in Queensland. The last piece of the manufacturing puzzle, which is the dispensing of pharmaceutical products into vials and syringes will be solved when we open our new facility. We need to market Queensland as a one-stop shop for clinical trials. The capabilities combined with Australia’s R&D tax incentive, which is highly attractive and marks us out for international investment, and Australia’s straightforward clinical trials regulatory system makes it a no-brainer

What’s your view on the Queensland Government’s support for the life sciences industry in the state?

The Queensland government has been very supportive. Queensland is ideally placed to capitalise on world-class education capabilities and infrastructure to be the best in the world, however the cost of entry is very high and support is needed to continue to grow the industry

What’s the biggest value you’ve got out of your dealings with the State Government?

We were the recipient of a Queensland Government Made in Queensland grant that allowed us to invest in equipment to expand our operations and modernise.

How useful have the Queensland Government-led industry missions to the annual BIO International Conference in the United States of America being to your company?

The Queensland Bio missions are great. It makes us unique amongst the Australian states and gives us a bigger presence than we would otherwise have.

From your BIO Mission experiences, how do think the rest of the world sees Queensland? Why do you think that is?

I think Queensland punches above its weight in how it is perceived. The government support helps with that along with the presence of a significant number of research institute and university people.

What are our strong points? What are our weaknesses?

Queensland has a real can-do attitude which is great, however we suffer from parochialism and there is too much competition between the universities and different research institutes as they battle for funding. That combined with interstate rivalry hurts us all.

What do you like to do on your time off?

I stay pretty active: mountain biking, motorcycle riding, fishing, camping and I have just taken up golf again after 20 years off.

Luina Bio CEO Les Tillack enjoying life during his younger years. Courtesy Les Tillack.

What gives you the greatest pleasure in life?

Getting out of the city into the bush, wherever that is and however you get there.

Do you consider the scientists working on the vaccine projects to be heroes?

While COVID-19 is a real and current pressing need, scientists who work in all medical research and drug development are doing it so that they can make a difference to other people’s lives.

What advice do you have for young people — do you think a STEM education is critical to future employment? Why?

Look for a career that will make you happy to come to work every day and give you a reason to get up in the morning beyond getting a paycheque. STEM is vitally important as we have developed into a planet and society that is not self-supporting. We need to be able to rise to the challenge to stop harming the planet and be able to support our ever-increasing population.

What kind of skills do you look for in potential employees?

In new graduates, I am looking for the ability to think and learn. These are the two most important skills a university can impart. This gives us a fresh canvas to develop. In experienced staff I am looking for people who can give their all into a really busy work environment and bring the skills and experience with them. A positive attitude and the ability to provide fresh insights are essential.

Visit Advance Queensland to find out how you can be supported on your research and innovation journey.

Last updated 28 Apr, 2020
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