Success for microscopic image analysis of viruses

Vironova builds electron microscopes and software for image analysis of viruses and biological drugs.
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“Vaccines and above all the breakthrough in gene therapy have significantly increased the demand for our image analysis technology”, says Mohammed Homman, CEO of this Stockholm company.

Certain vaccines use a virus as a mode of transport into the body. Viruses are also used in this way in gene therapy. This technology demands a lot from manufacturing processes. There are, for example, multiple cleaning stages where cells or particles can potentially be destroyed. This is where Vironova’s instruments come in handy. The company's electron microscope and image analysis software make it possible to monitor the entire process.

The company was founded in Stockholm in 2005. Today it has 140 employees and is expanding internationally. An office was recently opened in Boston, USA. Customers include the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies all around the world. Among other things, Vironova can analyse a customer’s samples and help them to optimise their processes. But today customers are also purchasing their own microscopes to do the testing themselves.

“Nine of the largest pharmaceutical companies, or 15 out of 20, are our customers. Most of them send samples to us for analysis. Several have purchased their first microscope.

It all started as a research project at Karolinska Institutet. Mohammed Homman was working on his doctorate and researching a drug against the herpes virus. The strategy was to produce a substance that destroyed the protective coating surrounding the virus in order to render it harmless. Using the electron microscope in the institute’s basement, he took photos of the virus before and after it was treated with the drug candidate to see if the coating was destroyed.

He developing the images and then checked and counted the virus particles manually. But this was time-consuming work and the images could be interpreted in different ways. So he started working with colleagues Ida Maria Sintorn at Uppsala University and Martin Ryner at the Royal Institute of Technology to develop software to do the job.

“Our software can look for and find a virus or cells in images, measure them, examine the surface and determine if the virus particle has been destroyed. The images can become evidence by extracting information and compiling it in reports with relevant statistics.

In 2015 the projects focusing on drugs against the herpes and influenza viruses were hived off to become a separate company called Vironova Medical. Vironova AB continues to development software and hardware for image analysis.

“We integrated the software with the microscope and eventually started building our own small electron microscope, a mini TEM (transmission electron microscope). There is a lot of interest in this and we now need to increase our production capacity. Japanese company Hitachi has become a part owner and partner. Together they have developed a new microscope in which Vironova’s image analysis software has been integrated into Hitachi’s electron microscope. In order for a vaccine or other drug to be approved and sold, it must be manufactured according the GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) protocol.

“We have built the world’s first and only GMP-certified electron microscope lab. We perform quality assurance and provide a tool in the drug development process. We take photos of the samples with the electron microscope and analyse several variables, such as particle size, purity and if the virus particles contain anything else. The benefits include that several analyses can be performed on a small sample. We can also go back to look at the images of the sample afterwards to determine if anything new has happened in a development process”.

Vironova's customers at this time are mainly big pharma companies that use viruses for gene therapy – a growing market. But the microscope can also be used by vaccine developers.

“The majority of all those producing vaccines against, for example, the flu virus are our customers”, says Mohammed Homman.