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UK STARTUP CREATING ANIMAL-FREE DRUG TESTING
A new UK startup is developing a unique new method for testing the impact of pharmaceutical drugs on the heart without having to resort to animal testing or early-stage human clinical trials.
InoCardia, the company in question, is a spin-out from the Coventry University. It is currently in the process of validating the model and commercialising the business. It has already attracted funding from Mercia Fund Management, a Venture Capital (VC) fund that has tie-ins with eight West Midlands universities and specialises in sectors such as medical research, disruptive technology, financial technology and e-commerce.
The funding and further help from Mercia has been invaluable in furthering InoCardia as a business, says Dr Helen Maddock, an academic at Coventry University’s Centre for Applied Biological and Exercise Sciences and the chief executive officer (CEO) of InoCardia.
For example, Mercia has linked InoCardia up with Dr Rob Wallis, a retired safety director for drug giant, Pfizer. Wallis has been able to help InoCardia with the commercialisation of its product by acting as a liaison with the big research firms in the pharmaceutical drug discovery sector.
“My view that there’s a commercial opportunity is one thing,” says Dr Maddock. “But at the end of day we needed commercial expertise to look at the assay and discuss with customers about whether there was any commercial value in the product.”
Wallis and Mercia were able to demonstrate the commercial viability of the product after discussions with key companies in the sector and marketing analysis. They found that, like Maddock thought, there was a gap in the drug-discovery service market for a product like InoCardia’s.
“We’re trying to engage early with customers to insure we’re offering an assay they’d want to use to screen their compounds,” says Dr Maddock. “Rob Wallis has been instrumental in terms of engaging with large players in the pharmaceutical industry in terms of what it is that they’d actually want and how they want to test their drugs.”
The InoCardia model uses samples of human heart tissue attached to a rig. The heart tissue is lengthened and shortened (contracted) through stimulation by an electrical impulse in order to mimic a working heart. Trial drugs are then added to the tissue to determine whether they have any unforeseen effects – a task that could previously only be performed In vivo (on live animals) or in human patients during clinical trials.
“The simulated system provides the world’s most realistic model of heart muscle dynamics at this point in time,” says Dr Maddock. “We’re still validating work on the model but the results we’ve got so far look extremely promising.”
Not only does the method eliminate the need for unreliable animal testing or expensive human clinical trials at an early stage, it is also able to process tests more quickly and results more closely match those of later, in-depth clinical trials – providing pharmaceutical researchers with indications at a much earlier stage and cheaper cost.
“One of the main mantras in pharmaceutical research is: ‘Fail early and fail cheaply’,” says Dr Maddock. “We need to find more innovative ways to do this.”
Assuming initial validation proves correct and the method is viable, InoCardia’s next ambition is to use isolated human heart cells with the model. This would increase throughput and be very useful in the lead optimisation phase of the drug discovery process, says Dr Maddock.
“The cell-based asset would be very efficient, cost effective and very relevant,” adds Mark Payton, managing director of Mercia Fund Management.”The methodology will have other applications for other cells. If they crack it with heart cells then they can do it with other cells. But all startups need to focus when they are just beginning, so currently the concentration is only on heart tissue and then heart cells.”
This is also the most relevant development for the testing of most pharmaceutical products, he adds. Unexpected effects on the heart is one of the most common reasons cited in cases of drugs being pulled from late-stage development – at great cost to the pharmaceutical company, he says.
If InoCardia’s new testing method works it could provide multiple benefits to multiple interested parties. It would significantly lower the chances of expensive dead-ends in pharmaceutical research – lowering the cost of drug potential and, potentially the cost of drugs for new consumers (if companies were to pass on savings). It would also increase drug safety and cut down the need for some types of unreliable animal testing – a result likely to make many people happy.