York County lab uses niche technology for COVID-19 research

Ioannis Pashakis//May 6, 2020

York County lab uses niche technology for COVID-19 research

Ioannis Pashakis//May 6, 2020

G. Thomas Caltagirone, seen Wednesday, January 22, 2020, is President & CEO at Aptagen, LLC. The biotech company is celebrating their 15th year at 250 North Main Street, Jacobus. PHOTO/ MARK DELOATCH

Thomas Caltagirone, president and CEO of Aptagen, a biotech company specialized in creating synthetic antibodies called aptamers, was told by doctors that he may have lung cancer when he was hospitalized for pneumonia in January.

It wasn’t cancer. Caltagirone turned out to have a strain of coronavirus different from COVID-19 known as HKU1. The entrepreneur and neuroscientist continues to fight complications from the virus as his company focuses on its own fight with COVID-19.

Jacobus, York County-based Aptagen is one of many biotech companies using their resources to develop tests and antiviral treatment for COVID-19.

“I have a personal interest in attacking this virus,” said Caltagirone, who is doing what he can to separate his current health issues from his work at the lab. “I want to play a role in the research that could one day be a solution, or at the very least contribute to the general knowledge.”

Aptagen operates in a niche within the scientific community developing aptamers, synthetic antibodies made from strands of DNA, that can bind themselves to targets specified by Aptagen’s clients.

The pandemic’s scale has affected labs around the world, slowing down previous projects and causing staff to focus on contributing to improving testing or developing therapies for COVID-19, according to Caltagirone.

“The race is on and we are taking multiple shots from a microcosmic level by using these molecular tools and I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of research labs in academia that are doing the same thing with different approaches,” he said.

Aptagen’s use of the synthetic antibodies places the company in a small niche in the scientific community, which primarily focuses on organic antibodies to fight diseases.

“Aptamers are still considered an emerging technology because it’s still not widely known in the scientific community,” said Caltagirone. “They have so much more promise in terms of development and skill but it’s unproven in the marketplace– there is no blockbuster success we can point to.”

Aptagen’s projects involving COVID-19 include the development of a test to find specific antibodies in the blood, and developing aptamers to find specific proteins on the virus and attack it.

“Obviously the bigger guys with connections in the government will have first dibs at established tech and platforms,” he said. “But if there is no quick solution, there is this trickle-down effect where these unique technologies have a chance to be in the limelight.”

Caltagirone said that his company is currently prioritizing its COVID-19-related projects but is keeping some of his 20 staff members on previous projects taken on before the crisis.

Aptagen expects to bring on a number of interns in the summer and is expanding its laboratory space at its Jacobus headquarters, which Caltagirone said will allow Aptagen to put more of a focus on projects outside of COVID-19.