Dr. John McCafferty, Winner of the Life Sciences Inspiration of the Year Award 2022

At the One Nucleus Building Life Science Adventures careers conference on 2 March 2022, Dr. John McCafferty, CSO and Founder, IONTAS Limited and CEO and Founder of Maxion Therapeutics, was announced winner of the Life Sciences Inspiration of the Year Award, sponsored and presented by Johnson & Johnson Innovation. This award recognises an ambassador for the Life Sciences, someone who has shown great leadership in building teams and who is an inspiration to others and John has certainly gone above and beyond in achieving this.

After completing a PhD in his hometown, Glasgow, and post-doc in London, John’s love for science drove him to become the pioneer and co-inventor of antibody-phage display and co-founder of Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT) in 1990, which was later acquired by AstraZeneca for £700million. This technology is now used to advance science by commercial and academic groups including the top 20 pharmaceutical companies internationally.

On leaving CAT, John decided to return to academia and established a highly proficient proteomics group at the Wellcome Trust Sanger which developed cutting edge protein expression and high throughput recombinant antibody isolation. During a recent interview, which can be found on the One Nucleus YouTube Channel, John described these five years as a fantastic experience and was motivated by his return to basic science. Despite having a fantastic review, the Sanger decided to drop proteomics and stop the funding. Fortunately, John was able to negotiate taking some money and a team of people to a research group which he headed at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, which focused on identifying anti-receptor antibodies with therapeutics potential in cancer identification for another five years.

In the interview, John shared that the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge was particularly powerful in shaping his outlook on many things throughout his career. It was an environment where he was surrounded by inspirational Nobel Prize winners, other likeminded colleagues that absorbed and shared the same passion for the culture and working in Greg Winter’s laboratories which helped him to flourish.

Having developed his skills and knowledge further with his team at the University of Cambridge, when funding ended, John made the decision to start an antibody drug discovery services company called IONTAS. A group of them left on a Friday as academics and came into work on Monday morning, signed their first contract and pushed out some job offer letters which got them going. When the time came to naming the company, John was inspired by Professor Ian Chambers who discovered and named the gene ‘NANOG’ (a Gaelic word which means ‘Land of Youth’) and combined with the fact that his parents were from a town in Ireland called Donegal which still speaks Gaelic, so he used his branding budget which was £4.99 to buy a Gaelic dictionary to help him choose a name. Having flicked through the dictionary, he was drawn to the word IONTAS because it included the word ‘ion’ and he had a goal to work with ion channels at some point. The company grew organically and they eventually transitioned into a organisation of about 30 people over six years which successfully ran around 45 projects for different companies, which he is incredibly proud of. John described the value and importance that the network he had built during his time at CAT had in supporting the business development during the initial start-up period. IONTAS was later sold to FairJourney Biologics in May 2020.

After selling IONTAS, John formed Maxion Therapeutics (based in Cambridge) and they separated out the KnotBody™ technology he invented into this new company. The organisation now has seven employees working in the laboratory and they have already achieved an Innovate UK grant, have granted patents on the technologies and some assets and are now preparing a Series A investment round.

Keen to contribute somewhat to the world of anti-venoms, John is currently working on a “Generation of venom neutralizing recombinant antibodies” project at the Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge for which he was recently awarded a £1.7million three year Wellcome Trust grant.

John is undoubtedly an inspiration to so many people, we wish him every success in his future projects and look forward to seeing what is to come!


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