Innovation hubs across the UK are bringing together life-science stakeholders to light the fuse on innovation
Healthcare innovation is everywhere. We can see it happening in front of our eyes in pockets of England, Scotland and Wales. In fact, many large healthcare organisations have set up innovation centres in key cities around the UK. One such innovation centre is GE Healthcare's Innovation Village in Cardiff that is dedicated to developing technologies and tools for the global life sciences industry. It has laboratory, meeting and office space with room for 12 businesses at a time to grow and develop.
The UK Government initiative Catapult has centres that are designed to transform the UK's capability for innovation in seven specific areas, one of which is cell therapy. Within the Cell Therapy Catapult (CTC) are projects such as the development of a new immuno-oncology cellular therapy, which is based on gene-modifying 'T' cells to target solid tumours. The technology, which has been developed in conjunction with The University of Birmingham and Cancer Research Technology, compromises oxygen supply to the tumours to inhibit tumour growth. It is currently undergoing pre-clinical development before entering clinical trials.
A further project in this area, which is a collaboration between CTC, Synpromics Limited and the Scottish Life Sciences Association, is set to remove a major barrier in cell and gene therapy by reducing the cost and increasing the scale of viral vector manufacturing. Viral vectors are a crucial tool needed to modify a patient's cells to create a therapeutic effect and cannot currently be produced in a large enough quantity or with strong enough effect to tackle diseases where a large amount of virus is required. This technology is set to provide a solution to what is currently a large industrial challenge. Here in Wales and also in Scotland, we are lucky enough to have access to dedicated life sciences 'hubs'. Based in Edinburgh, the Scottish Life Sciences Association (SLA) has 125 member organisations and provides a voice for Scotland's life sciences industry. It facilitates networking with its members via 12 Special Interest Groups and aims to grow life sciences in Scotland.
One of its key projects, with NHS Scotland, is the Health Innovation Partnership (HIP). It has been designed to enable a two-way exchange of ideas and requirements between the life sciences industry and NHS Scotland. Currently, around 150 on-the-ground clinicians are partnering with organisations in the areas of medtech, digital health and medicines to meet the needs of existing and future generations in Scotland.
Another SLA project in conjunction with Roslin Cells, which develops and manufactures cell therapies, has recently started clinical trials in retinal transplanting to treat patients with 'wet' age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Wet AMD develops when abnormal blood vessels form underneath the macula and damage its cells – one in ten people with AMD develop the condition. The project is a key step towards fulfilling the aims of London-based Project to Cure Blindness and could provide relief to 'wet' AMD patients whose eyesight can deteriorate within days.
At the Life Sciences Hub Wales we have developed a vibrant life sciences ecosystem where we bring together academia, business, clinical and professional services and funding organisations to foster scientific and innovative developments. We currently have 90 member companies and organisations, and this figure keeps growing as organisations large and small pledge to connect and innovate within our collaboratively designed space in Cardiff Bay.
One key project for us is with Proton Partners International for a targeted cancer treatment called proton beam therapy that will transform patient care. Proton beam therapy kills cancer cells in the same way as regular radiotherapy treatment. But unlike radiotherapy, proton beams stop when they hit their target, rather than carrying on through the body. This is one of the most strategic healthcare projects in the UK as it is focused on better outcomes for those patients who would benefit from proton beam therapy more than with radiotherapy. The first proton beam therapy centre is currently being built in South Wales and is set to be operational by the end of the year. A groundbreaking ceremony took place on the site on Monday 18 January.
Another key project for us is Cotton Mouton Diagnostics (CMD) which grew out of research within Cardiff and Exeter Universities and is now located at the GE Innovation Village in Cardiff. CMD develops technology for applications focused on the diagnosis of the extremely common and often fatal condition of sepsis. The technology grew out of the realisation that malaria created magnetic markers in the blood, and its researchers quickly took it into the field and diagnosed malaria in some third-world patients. The project runs until 2017 and then CMD envisages developing a small instrument that can test for malaria at a hospital ward level, taking less than an hour to produce results. As infection increases at a level of 10 percent per hour, this could potentially save many lives.
Life sciences continues to grow and is an exciting area to be connected with because of developments like these dovetailing with the healthcare industry at a time when patient-centric care is more important than ever. Increasingly, we have a population in need of better healthcare and life sciences can provide this. From a UK economy perspective it is also great to see that such crucial exportable developments are happening right on our doorstep.
Dr Ian Barwick is chief operating officer of the Life Sciences Hub Wales