Oxford companies spun out of OUI are helping restore sight, and tackle two of the biggest killers of our time.
A life without sight is a reality many of us would struggle to even comprehend, let alone live with.
Yet, for 285 million people, severe visual impairment is a reality, equating to roughly one in 26 people globally. 39 million of those are completely blind; of those, 90% live in the developing world.
The good news is that help is on the way. Oxford University, through its innovation activities, has launched three companies which are looking at novel ways of treating visual impairment.
The most notable example of these is also one of Oxford University Innovation’s biggest successes to date.
Nightstar Therapeutics, founded in 2014, was created to develop research by Professor Robert MacLaren into gene therapies which could treat rare genetic retinal disorders. Since its creation, Nightstar has become a runaway success. Typically, a spinout’s development cycle can take as long as 10 years, particularly in life sciences. Nightstar went from spinout to Initial Public Offering (IPO) in four, holding its flotation on the NASDAQ in 2018. The company then went on to be sold to major US biotech Biogen in 2019 for more than $800m, one of the biggest UK biotech exits in recent history and a record exit for an Oxford University spinout. Its primary product is currently in Phase III trials, with the potential for deployment not far off.
Another spinout looking at this space from a different angle is OxSight, a company using AI vision technology to help enable sight.
The company’s technology is inspired by fundamental vision research, undertaken at Oxford’s Clinical Neuroscience Department which focuses on how the brain construes visual information. OxSight smart glasses, powered by computer vision algorithms, stream a live feed into colour-rich, OLED displays which are placed directly in front of the area of usable vision. The technology, incorporated into both OxSight’s Prism and Crystal glasses, can expand the field of vision, enabling people with tunnel vision to see more of the world.
OxSight quickly grew from a university lab project to launching its commercially available range in July 2018, and has already made a significant impact on the low vision community across the globe receiving outstanding user reviews. The company plans to capitalise on this early success by launching a third product to address central vision loss due to Age Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), which will be available by mid-2020. The technology can be adapted for various other applications such as games, medical, security, and future computer platforms.
“OxSight in a short time frame has developed from university tech to an SME,” said Rakesh Roshan, CEO at OxSight. “Our multi product approach is designed to benefit over 75% of the registered blind community, enhancing vision and allowing beneficiaries to become more independent, rekindle previous activities and develop new hobbies. We are aware that by 2040, 1 in 9 individuals globally will be diagnosed with AMD, and we strive to ensure there is a global solution to transform as many lives as possible.”
Rounding out the spinouts is OxStem, emerging from Professor Steve Davies’ research in Chemistry, which has already led to the creation of numerous spinouts, including Summit Therapeutics and Oxford Asymmetry, both listed companies with the latter merging with Evotec. OxStem, which Davies co-founded with Professors Angie Russell and Kay Davies is focused on regenerative therapies – essentially using small molecules to stimulate stem cells enabling the body to regrow damaged body parts without the need for transplantation.
OxStem came out of the gate in 2016 with one of the biggest seed rounds in Oxford history, raising £16.9m. Acting as a parent organisation, it has created a number of smaller companies, known as Stems. These Stem spinouts are focused on unmet medical needs such as diabetes, chronic wound healing, and cancer.
One of these Stems, OxStem Ocular, is looking for small molecules that can regrow cells in the eye to treat blindness, and the team includes Robert MacLaren who founded Nightstar. OxStem Ocular’s approach differs as it does not require cell transplantation and has the potential to treat blindness regardless of the genes that cause it.
Oxford’s companies aren’t just helping people regain sight, but are also training artificial intelligence to detect diseases before a human doctor can. While OxStem Neuro and OxStem Cardio are looking at therapeutics that can treat victims of dementia and heart disease, the growing field of imaging diagnostics is providing clinicians real hope in preventative medicine that can tackle two of the biggest killers of our age.
As our society ages, the terrible disease of dementia has in 2019 become the UK’s number one killer. Dementia robs people not just of a sense, but of their entire identity. Tragically, it is a disease that cannot be cured at present, with over 100 failures to date for potential therapeutics.
Dementia is a very complex disease condition of the brain and this complexity is further exacerbated by the lack of new and improved drug treatments for patients as clinical trials continue to fail. Globally, most clinicians use a variety of cognitive tests, MRI, PET and CT scans to gather vital information about the disease in order to move towards some hope of accurate diagnosis. If appropriate and deemed necessary, patients today will most likely be prescribed cholinesterase inhibitors and/or memantine. These older drugs are designed to address symptoms and do not tackle the underlying pathology of the disease and its progression towards severity.
Oxford Brain Diagnostics, a brain health analytics spinout, is looking to enable early detection of Alzheimer’s. Using MRI as the source, its proprietary algorithms measure neurodegeneration in the grey matter cell structures that can be a precursor to the disease, years before the symptoms emerge. With this information, it may be possible to help pharmaceutical companies with much needed innovative new drugs and support a clinician’s diagnosis of patients with useful and relevant new data on the condition being assessed. With this combined effort, detecting the disease earlier and theoretically delaying its progression could lead to better patient and family outcomes.
“We have to continue to push the global brain health campaign and I would like us to be one of many key players at the forefront of enabling public awareness and education,” said Dr Steven Chance, CEO at OBD. “By launching innovative new measurements and monitoring of brain health, we hope to empower clinicians and the patient voice, to demystify the brain and mental health issues, and to encourage access to scans for consistent health monitoring and for prevention of serious neurological conditions.”
Imaging diagnostics is also helping clinicians identify and respond to stroke victims at pace, thanks to Oxford spinout Brainomix. The company’s e-Stroke Suite software can automatically assess brain scans to support a physician when diagnosing stroke patients. Its AI-driven software can generate advanced results from simple CT scans, allowing doctors to quantify the potential damage of a stroke, and in turn decide the best treatment option for each patient.
Having secured its first CE mark in 2015, the company has expanded its portfolio and now offers clinicians the world’s most comprehensive stroke imaging platform. As part of a recent collaboration with the University, Brainomix has become one of the technology providers of a £17.5m UK government funded project into AI-based imaging technologies. The company has continued its global expansion, with its software now being routinely used in hospitals and stroke centres around the world.
“At Brainomix we are committed to creating solutions that will benefit all levels of a stroke network, but in particular we are focused on advancing the value of simple imaging, to make life-saving stroke treatments accessible to all patients,” noted Dr. Michalis Papadakis, CEO and Co-Founder of Brainomix.
Despite dementia’s ascendancy to become the top killer in the UK, heart disease is still at second place, accounting for 10.9% of all deaths in 2017. The World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of all heart disease and strokes are preventable. As with any disease, the earlier at-risk patients can be identified, the more can be done to treat the condition.
Caristo Diagnostics, a spinout based on the pioneering work of Professor Charalambos Antoniades at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine, again makes use of CT scans and AI-driven imaging software, to spot potential heart attack victims. The technology is highly accurate, has generated evidence in thousands of patients and can identify the plaque build up that could lead to cardiac arrest years before the event happens.
“Caristo’s technology is set to revolutionise our approach to predicting an individual’s risk of dying from a heart attack” said Cheerag Shirodaria, Caristo’s CEO. “Our methods require no additional inconvenience for either patients or doctors and can even reclassify a patient’s risk from existing CT heart scans that have already been obtained. The company has generated considerable publicity through its scientific innovation and is poised to launch its service for patients in 2020.”