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A short interview to bring you back stage of Vironova with Dr. Josefina Nilsson, our Head of Business Unit, Electron Microscopy Services who delves into the unique benefits of transmission electron microscopy (TEM); the importance of TEM analysis in the pharmaceutical industry; and the significance of being able to listen, learn and grow with others to create something truly unique and exceptional.
On a high level could you please tell us about what Vironova does?
Josefina Nilsson: Vironova is a Swedish biotech company offering unique services for nano-particle characterization and viral clearance testing together with hardware and software solutions for advanced electron microscopy image analysis. We have been operating with this for over 10 years and are currently working with 10 of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies.
Our mission is to help the biopharmaceutical industry with new analytical solutions, to make transmission electron microscopy TEM based on image analysis accessible for their drug and formulation development. TEM has been too expensive and complex for gene therapy, vaccine, and drug development in the past but Vironova has been making this technology both user-friendly and more readily available over the years.
TEM is really important because it allows for automated analyses for faster and better-informed decisions for bioprocessing and final product quality. Depending on our client’s need, we can offer to help them to perform the analysis in-house with our MiniTEM or they can send their samples to us for cost effective analysis in our certified laboratories to achieve accurate metrics. This is incredibly critical when you want to have macro insights from micro-cosmos, where nano-particles can be both our friends or our worst enemies.
How did you end up at Vironova?
Josefina Nilsson: The company was founded by Mohammed Homman in the early 2000:s. I had a lunch with Mohammed in 2003 when he expressed an interest to start a company. At that time, I was in the middle of my PhD at Karolinska Institute in biophysics and structural biology. He made a mention that it would be great for us to work together, but I didn’t think of it too much. But after having defended my PhD in 2006, the offer came, and I joined him at his company thereafter. I was one of the first people on board. We were only 6 people back then, and today we are at 84 people at Vironova AB with 3 subsidiaries! It has been a fun, challenging and very exciting time and so rewarding to be part of something from the very beginning.
"We have grown the company to offer a full stack TEM value chain - from hardware, software and an electron microscopy service. The last division which I am also responsible for."
Is there any particular way that makes you proud to be an Vironovian?
Josefina Nilsson: If you want to go far, you need to do so with a diverse group of people and be willing to listen and learn and to dare to be in the forefront to create new paths. We have achieved this by combining different knowledge backgrounds and taking advantage of the rich cultural diversity we have at Vironova.
Without diving into the bottom of the ocean, tell us more about the importance of nano-particle analysis?
Josefina Nilsson: Nano-particles are used in many different medical areas today. When using nano-particles in drug formulations, characteristics like particle size, shape and other structural features can often be directly correlated to the efficacy and safety of the drug. And to be able to actually see and characterize something as small as a nano-particle, TEM is needed. Compared to a traditional optical microscope, it uses a focused beam of electrons which is sent through a sample in order to form an image, from which we can extract essential information using our in-house developed image analysis software
This is particularly critical today especially in our work with biopharmaceuticals. Vironova’s TEM analysis of vaccines, gene therapy and drug delivery particles such as liposomes and viruses has made us an important actor in our clients’ research and development efforts as well quality assurance. What we are able to provide for the pharmaceutical industry is now deemed as business and quality critical, and a key determinant in their decision-making as to whether or not they should go into clinical trials or production.
How is TEM quality currently ensured for your electron microscopy services at Vironova?
Josefina Nilsson: Earlier this year, Vironova’s EM service unit secured a certificate of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) compliance of a manufacturer from Sweden’s Medical Products Agency (Läkemedelsverket).
We are really proud that we were able to secure this as the world’s first laboratory within electron microscopy. GMP is a set of regulations that are put into place by regulatory bodies around the world. It is applied for customers within the pharmaceutical industry involved in developing and manufacturing of investigational medicinal products (IMP) and licensed medicinal products.
The pharma industry is highly regulated and quality is extremely important to uphold. For Vironova to share the same high level of certification with many of our clients is an important message that we are also committed to quality, dependability, control, accuracy, and safety in the services that we provide. It took quite some time for us to investigate how to secure certification, but being the first electron microscopy lab in the world to be GMP certified is an enormous achievement.
Vironova has developed and commercialized an own TEM-system. How would you describe the MiniTEM System?
To keep it short because this could be an essay, our MiniTEM system is a semi-automated, compact TEM-system for analysis and characterization of nano-particles, viral vectors and virus-based biotherapeutics.
The system sheds light on how a hardware and software system brought together can transform image acquisition, to powerful analytical data, to real business intelligence; to save time and money in process development, and increase qualitative project throughput in gene therapies, vaccine and drug delivery manufacturing.
For the present - we are now in June having countered the Covid-19 pandemic, how have Vironova responded to the operational challenge which the whole world now is facing?
Josefina Nilsson: Regarding the Coronavirus situation, Vironova was early on contacted by the Public Health Agency of Sweden (Folkhälsomyndigheten) to be their business partner in an EU grant application regarding the development of new antiviral drugs against the virus. There, we will contribute with our technical expertise as well as our knowledge in drug development. We also have our company “Vironova Medical” which is at the forefront of the development of new antivirals against the Coronavirus.
Furher operationally our commitment during the Covid-19 outbreak can be summarized in two major parts: We want to ensure the health and safety of our employees, and enabling business by remote work for employees and remaining operational for our customers.
You have been a part of Vironova’s growth since its inception. As it continues to grow, what kind of cultural foundation are you hoping to bring forth?
Josefina Nilsson: One characteristic that I am sure that we will retain if not fine-tune further is our entrepreneurial spirit. Mohammed is a really dynamic CEO and has created a fantastic atmosphere within the organization. There is plenty of room for every team member to make a difference and so many learning opportunities that we can take from working with each other and our clients. I am quite certain that this type of team spirit has helped us in the past, and will continue to define Vironova into the future.
If one is to really take advantage of the learning opportunities, then you must be pretty humble. There are a lot of extremely knowledgeable team members at Vironova. They hold doctorate degrees within structural biology, mathematics, programming, image analysis and so much more. These are top experts in their areas from around the world, and at Vironova we are asking them to come together to learn from each other so that their combined efforts can build something completely unique and exceptional. If you want to go far, you need to do so with a diverse group of people and be willing to listen and learn and to dare to be in the forefront to create new paths. We have achieved this by combining different knowledge backgrounds and taking advantage of the rich cultural diversity we have at Vironova.
Finally, while it is exciting being on the cutting edge of electron microscopy, we need to keep thinking of ways in which TEM can benefits our clients. Within the Service department, we are extremely close to the companies that we work with. These are top organizations within vaccines, anti-cancer drugs, and gene therapy. We need to continue providing them analysis that drives their R&D as well as monitor their quality standards when going into clinical trials. Vironova is so close aligned to their purpose and discoveries and it is really exciting to contribute to that journey, be it for orphan drugs or Covid-19 for example.
Expert or non-expert, if you want to learn more on how TEM rapidly can obtain meaningful nano-particle characterization data for biopharma development, or just have a question to you - What is the smoothest way forward?
Josefina Nilsson: That´s really simple and straight forward, just reach out to me on LinkedIn, email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with one of Vironova´s TEM specialist at Vironova and we/I will be happy to continue, develop or deep dive into the dialogue!
Finally if you found the topic interesting or know someone who would benefit of reading this interview, please push the word forward!
Head of Business Unit, EM Services
Josefina Nilsson, Head of Electron Microscopy Services at Vironova, has specialized expertise in the structural analysis of viruses and nano-particles, electron microscopy, and its industrial applications. Since 2009, she has been responsible for the company’s EM services, which offer electron microscopy and image analysis services for biopharmaceuticals. Josefina has shaped the Vironova services and solutions related to characterization of nano-particles with particular focus on virus, virus-like particles, and gene therapy vectors. She holds a doctorate in biophysics and structural biology from the Karolinska Institute. To get in personal contact with Josefina, connect with Josefina Nilsson at on LinkedIn.