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Life and Health Sciences put NI on the map as a potential global market leader

  • HIRANI outline the greatest businesses leading the way for industry innovation in medical sciences.

    Northern Ireland’s Life and Health Sciences innovation sector is booming, with recent figures showing growth is exceeding Boston, the world’s number one health and life sciences supercluster.

    A total of 75% of all spinout companies from universities are health and life sciences businesses, with excellent capital efficiency showing market resiliency. 

    Over the past year, the sector has had 9% jobs growth and 23% sales growth, yet is still underexplored and ripe for growth and investment.

    We take a look at four NI companies shining on the world innovation stage:

    Lisburn-based digital health company Cirdan Ltd are leading their field, partnering digital imaging with analytics to ensure more accurate, earlier diagnosis of breast cancer to accelerate treatment for patients and reduce the burden on healthcare systems, setting digital imaging precedents to support healthcare professionals diagnose patients earlier and relieving pressure on the patient, their families and health systems with the growing cancer epidemic.

    They are global leaders in laboratory information systems, focused on helping pathology laboratories meet their digital health needs. Cirdan were the first company to market a product focused on seamlessly collecting both text and images in the diagnosis of patients. They offer a complete end-to-end laboratory solution through the development of hardware and software tools.

    Cirdan have their headquarters in Lisburn with offices in Canada and Australia and provide 24/7, 365-day support to their seventy global customers. During their start-up journey, they received grant funding from Invest NI and Venture Investments which include the Clarendon Fund Partners and Kernel Capital. Cirdan are part of Smart Nano NI, a consortium of local Northern Ireland technology companies and research institutions, who have recently received additional funding to develop game-changing advanced prototyping and smart manufacturing methods to deliver modern technologies. CEO Hugh Cormican said, “We are part of that wider life-tech group in Northern Ireland which hopes to be the economic power of the future.”

    pHion Theraputics

    Founder and CEO, Professor Helen McCarthy is Chair of Nanomedicine in the School of Pharmacy, a global top 40 School in the QS rankings. Professor McCarthy spun out the company in 2017 because she could see that gene therapy would never fulfil its potential until a range of delivery systems were developed.

    As one of the first therapeutic bio-techs to spin out of Queen’s, pHion had to develop its own roadmap. The company has had many offers to relocate to well-known bio-tech hubs in GB and the US. However, they have resisted, choosing instead to garner knowledge from experts externally and bring it back to Belfast. The goal is to create a new industry for many of the talented graduates from both local universities, and for those who have left NI and wish to return.

    Winning both Invent and the All-Ireland Seedcorn Competition in 2017 paved the way for the company’s early development of the use of this peptide technology to deliver mRNA vaccines. Since 2019, it has secured ten awards from Innovate UK and benefited from additional support from Invest NI, Medicines Discovery Catapult, and the Centre for Process Innovation.

    “pHion sets high standards to encourage each individual to exceed their potential. This is necessary because everything pHion does is a first; there are no peptide-mRNA vaccine roadmaps to follow when it comes to the tests and quality checks for each product. pHion has to use solutions-based thinking in consultation with pharma experts so that together the team can educate others in this region on the optimal path to the clinic.”

    Above all, though, Prof McCarthy is committed to translating her delivery technology to the clinic for patient benefit.

    Belfast based Diaceutics study of US patient data recently showed how 64% of lung cancer patients did not receive access to the most effective medicines for them and their cancer type as a result of sub-optimal testing in the disease testing and diagnosis process.

    The US-based study of lung cancer patients found inefficiencies when testing for a patient’s DNA and cancer type (a process known as biomarker testing), which is used to select a cancer treatment which is right for that specific individual.

    This means patients are frequently unable to access the most effective treatment, tailored to their genetic make-up (known as Personalised Medicines) with considerable implications for their recovery and well-being.

    Using data from 38,068 USA-based cases of those diagnosed in 2019 with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), this study reveals the barriers preventing patients from receiving these specialised treatments. This includes:

    18% of patients not receiving the correct treatment because of inconclusive or false negative diagnosis test results, and 29% because, although tests were successfully carried out, the clinicians did not prescribe the treatment the patient could have benefitted from.

    “Personalised Medicine brings a more promising future to the millions of patients undergoing cancer treatment,” said Peter Keeling CEO at Diaceutics.

    Peter has driven Diaceutics to become a leader in innovative solutions that enable pharma to leverage diagnostic testing globally.

    North West NI Entrepreneur Dr Susan Kelly was amongst this year’s 50 winners of Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation Awards who are developing novel solutions to major social, environmental and economic challenges.

    Dr Kelly, from Derry, Co-founder of Respiratory Analytics, designed an AI-led respiratory device, aflo™, for those with asthma, after witnessing her partner and two children being hospitalised due to life-threatening asthma attacks. Research shows almost 90% of sufferers do not master the right technique to get the best benefit from their inhalers, and aflo™ has been designed to do this automatically for them.

     “It’s a terrifying thing to witness a family member having a life-threatening asthma attack. Inhaled medications are the cornerstone of asthma management and I’ve seen how difficult it is to get inhaler technique right to optimise these drugs, which is why this innovation was born.”

    Health Innovation Research Alliance Northern Ireland (HIRANI), CEO Joann Rhodes said:

    “Precision medicine is the new generation of healthcare, with biomarkers and diagnostics essential for patient stratification, diagnosis and treatment.

    “The UK government is supporting the precision medicine sector, with millions of committed investment in genomic medicine, early diagnosis and detection and digital pathology.

    “Northern Ireland is recognised by the UK government as a region which excels in diagnostics, making the nation an excellent location for biomarker discovery and precision diagnostics.

    “Contributing over £1.1bn GVA to the local economy, the region presents a key opportunity to benefit from this strong life sciences cluster.

    “With over 250 SMEs in health and life sciences, approximately 20,000 people work in the sector. And for every one job created in health and life sciences, a further two jobs are created in supporting sectors.

    “Northern Ireland has the only fully integrated health and social care system in the UK, creating a truly unique dataset, benefitting from a stable 1.9m population for clinical trial recruitment.

    “Underpinned by Northern Ireland Electronic Care Record (NIECR), with every citizen having a unique patient identifier, Northern Ireland has a safe and secure cradle-to-grave record for more than 500,000 people, with highly characterised clinical cohorts, for which Northern Ireland is working towards enabling access for enriched clinical trials.

    “We are a small nation having a huge impact on global innovation”

    This article appears in the summer edition of Sync NI magazine. To receive a free copy click here

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