BioWorld International Correspondent

Aresa A/S, a Danish firm developing a plant biotechnology tool for detecting landmines, raised DKK54 million (US$8.7 million) in an initial public offering on First North, a new trading facility established by the Copenhagen Stock Exchange.

The company, based in Copenhagen, plans to use the proceeds to conduct expanded field trials in Denmark and elsewhere of its Arabidopsis thaliana plants, which have been genetically modified to express the red plant pigment anthrocyanin in the presence of elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide gas, which readily leaks from mines.

Arabidopsis normally expresses the pigment during autumn and as a response to physiological stress, but the modified version, developed by the company’s founder and chief scientific officer, Carsten Meier, does so within weeks of being planted in soils that have high levels of nitrogen dioxide. To prevent false positives, the company first selected hosts that have lost the ability to produce anthrocyanin. The hosts also lack the ability to express a plant growth hormone and cannot produce seeds, eliminating the risk of undesired spreading to sites that are not affected by buried landmines. The anthrocyanin production mutation is complemented by a genetic insert containing the CHS gene, which is involved in flavenoid biosynthesis, fused to an NO2 inducible promoter.

"The main reason we are where we are now is we had a very successful test with the Danish army," Aresa CEO Jarne Elleholm told BioWorld International. That small-scale trial, conducted last year, involved three different devices and six different explosives. The upcoming trials will be larger in scale - on the order of thousands of square meters - and also will give the company an opportunity to refine its spray-based planting technique.

The company is positioning its technology as an additional tool that can be used alongside existing mine-clearing methods, which include the use of dogs and metal detectors, as well as trained personnel. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a not-for-profit umbrella body based in Genappe, Belgium, said about 200,000 square kilometers of land across the globe are inaccessible due to minefields or unexploded ordnance. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people are killed or seriously injured each year because of the problem. The most heavily affected countries include Laos, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Elleholm said just 330 square kilometers were cleared last year. Aresa aims, he said, to increase this rate by five- to tenfold.

The company also wants to make its selectable marker system available to large agricultural biotechnology companies. In addition, it has a second technology platform, based on the use of plants for antibody optimization and production. That effort is at an earlier stage of development, though.

The company, which was founded in 2001, previously obtained seed funding from Vaekstfonden, DTU Innovation (now part of Seed Capital Denmark) and several angel investors, including Elleholm, who previously was UK managing director of Copenhagen-based pharmaceutical firm H. Lundbeck A/S.

The company is just the second to list on First North, a trading facility established last December for small-scale technology firms in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia.

"We wanted to create this company with the portfolio as it is but nobody could see the full picture," Elleholm said. The recent cash injection will fund the company for three years. "Hopefully by then we will have created an independent plant biotechnology company, which can stand on its own two feet."