Agile Auckland lab dives into COVID-19 testing

Our Team Japan specialists assist Japanese clients doing business and investing in New Zealand. One such client is New Zealand-Japanese subsidiary Diatranz Otsuka, which has been working to solve a health problem that plagues millions worldwide, and has also turned its sights to COVID-19 testing.  

Time to read: 5 mins

Shaun Wynyard in the lab.

What do you do if you’re an agile biotech that sees an opportunity for extra revenue while creating a potentially life-changing product? You pursue both, of course. Auckland company Diatranz Otsuka has been methodically advancing towards a cure for Type 1 diabetes, but research is expensive and as an accredited laboratory with a wealth of experience in PCR testing, in July it started offering a saliva-based COVID-19 PCR test.

The test is convenient and accurate without the discomfort of a nasal swab or the higher price of other tests on the market, says Diatranz Otsuka director and chief operating officer Shaun Wynyard.

Thus far, the company has focused on pre-flight departure tests. Most people go to its 19 Laureston Avenue, Papatoetoe, laboratory but Diatranz Otsuka has also found demand for its mobile service, especially from tourists without easy access to transport.  

“We don't test sick people or make clinical diagnosis, but the test is PCR based and therefore highly sensitive for COVID-19 detection,” says Shaun. “Our mobile service caters to individuals, groups and workplaces from Albany to Pukekohe, although we can accommodate special requests from further afield with enough notice.” 

The company is also about to offer a swab test to travellers to or from China, to meet the more stringent requirements of the Chinese government.

To get to this point, Diatranz Otsuka’s six-strong team (five plus one on maternity leave) have been wearing a lot of hats. Lab staff have taken on additional roles in compliance and customer service. Introverts are now flourishing out of their comfort zones. Even Shaun, who began in the company as a lab technician, still steps out of his director role to “mix things in tubes and analyse the data and results”.

A collaboration between Japan and New Zealand

Diatranz Otsuka was formed in 2011. It was born of a joint venture between Auckland company Living Cell Technologies, which had been using pig cells to develop a diabetes treatment, and Otsuka Pharmaceutical Factory – part of Japanese supergroup Otsuka Holdings. Shaun says the Otsuka family came to the party with funding due to its personal interest in finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes, which arises when the human body starts destroying its own islets – the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Diatranz Otsuka Limited had access to a unique herd of pigs in the Auckland Islands. Prolonged isolation meant they were free of many pathogens found in commercial pigs, and therefore safer for organ or cell transplant into humans.

DIABECELL – the product that Diatranz Otsuka has been working on – replaces damaged human islets with pig islets, restoring the ability to control blood glucose. An algal-like capsule protects the pig islets from attack by the patient’s immune system after the transplant. This negates the need for immunosuppressive drugs, which can cause side-effects.

Diatranz Otsuka conducted three successful clinical trials for DIABECELL – one in New Zealand and two in Argentina. “We consider ourselves pioneers in this field and we're very proud of that,” says Shaun. “We've proven that there are clinical benefits and long-term follow-up that shows that the procedure is safe 10 years after transplant.”

In 2015-2016, having recognised it would be better positioned to succeed in the world market if it had approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, the company shifted its manufacturing capabilities to the United States.

“That was a tough time – we lost some really good people,” says Shaun. “But we understood that it made sense from a business perspective and now the donor pigs are American-sourced, the product is made is in the US, and our immediate goal is getting approval for a larger clinical trial.”

Joining forces with Baker Tilly Staples Rodway’s Team Japan

Diatranz Otsuka formed a working relationship with Baker Tilly Staples Rodway and Team Japan in 2015. Shaun says they needed help with day-to-day things, like banking, payroll, taxes and audits.

The bilingual members of Team Japan also brought the capacity to ensure clear communication and understanding as needed between Diatranz Otsuka and Japanese speakers from Otsuka Pharmaceutical Factory. “It can be cleared up very quickly when there's an exchange in Japanese,” says Shaun. “I’ve gotten to know the Team Japan staff very well and trust them a lot, which means that they are often the first port of call if an issue comes up.”

It’s a close and mutually respectful relationship that extends to highly anticipated quarterly lunches, with BTSR Auckland International Financial Reporting Standards expert Megan Barwell also in attendance. 

Annette Azuma, director and head of Team Japan, says that in essence, they act as a back office for Diatranz Otsuka. Two Team Japan members – Sachiko Konno and Ayumi Sugimoto – have been instrumental and Sachiko even went to Japan for training on Otsuka Pharmaceutical Factory’s new systems.

"Shaun is a great client and it’s exciting for us to be supporting Japanese businesses in various industries,” says Annette. “Diatranz Otsuka is quite a niche and different type of company.”

Diplomatic and business relationships between the two countries are dear to her heart. She is vice chair of the Japan New Zealand Business Council (Baker Tilly Staples Rodway is a Gold Partner) and Sachiko is a Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Auckland board member. “Japan is known for its advanced technology and research,” says Annette. “And New Zealand is a great place for the technology to be developed and then taken on a global scale.”

That’s worked well for Diatranz Otsuka and Shaun says he’s proud of what they’ve achieved thus far. “There’s that altruistic mission of being able to help people, which is a big driver.”

He says xenotransplantation can be used for multiple conditions, so the company is also open to partnerships or collaborations, should others with similar goals wish to get in touch. Click here to learn more about Diatranz Otsuka’s COVID-19 testing or here to learn more about Team Japan. 

DISCLAIMER No liability is assumed by Baker Tilly Staples Rodway for any losses suffered by any person relying directly or indirectly upon any article within this website. It is recommended that you consult your advisor before acting on this information.

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