By Claire West

Grants from the government-backed Biomedical Catalyst totalling £39 million have been awarded to 32 projects led by small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) and universities.

These are the first substantial awards made from the £180 million Biomedical Catalyst, a programme of public funding jointly managed by the Technology Strategy Board and the Medical Research Council

The Biomedical Catalyst — announced by Prime Minister David Cameron in December last year — is designed to deliver effective support for the best life science opportunities arising in the UK, enabling businesses and academics to speed-up the translation of scientific ideas into commercial propositions, for the greater benefit of patients.

A digital healthcare system that will provide early diagnosis of dementia, a universal flu vaccine that could protect against all known strains of the illness and a targeted therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer are just three of the planned innovations that will be evaluated, developed or demonstrated using the funding provided by the Biomedical Catalyst.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science said:

“Britain is in a global race today and this £39 million investment will help keep us at the very forefront of life sciences by supporting some of our most innovative SMEs and universities. It will help take excellent ideas through to market, driving growth and helping patients benefit from the very latest technologies and treatments.”

The Biomedical Catalyst’s initial funding awards, announced in August, injected nearly £10 million into 14 universities and 18 SMEs, supporting them on their vital first steps in exploring the market potential of their scientific ideas.

Through these new funding awards, grants totalling £29.6 million have been agreed for 22 projects led by SMEs while a further £9.5 million has been awarded to ten projects led by academic institutions. They will undertake evaluations of the technical feasibility of their ideas, establish proof of concept or demonstrate the clinical effectiveness of their innovative technologies.

Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board, added:

“We have been hugely impressed by the number and quality of applications, which just goes to show the strength, vitality and innovative spirit of the UK’s world-leading life sciences industry. By providing vital finance to help at least some of these companies to evaluate, develop and demonstrate their exciting healthcare innovations, the Biomedical Catalyst is helping to turn promising ideas into innovative technologies faster, so providing greater benefits to patients through improvements in health outcomes.”

Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the MRC, said:

“It’s fantastic to see such a broad range of high-quality science being supported through the Biomedical Catalyst. By working closely with the Technology Strategy Board, the MRC hopes to continue to facilitate positive relationships between academic researchers and UK SMEs. But the real winners here will be patients, who are set to benefit from more efficient delivery of highly effective new therapies tailored to their needs.”

A collaborative project led by IXICO will develop a novel digital healthcare system that will enable faster, earlier and more cost effective dementia diagnosis. Deployed in a memory clinic or a local brain health centre, it will combine computerised cognitive testing and quantitative imaging to make available the quality of information currently only available in highly specialist centres to doctors treating all patients. The project aims to show that this scalable technology could shorten the time to diagnosis from an average 18 months to just three months, thus enabling patients to access timely treatment and support to improve their quality of life. IXICO, Cambridge Cognition and their academic partners will build and test a prototype within the NHS and demonstrate its value before developing a refined prototype that can be rolled-out nationally.

University of Oxford scientists will use their Biomedical Catalyst funding to conduct human trials of a universal flu jab that could protect against all known strains of the illness, including the more serious bird and swine flu. If successful, it could eventually replace the annual flu jabs offered to vulnerable groups (such as the elderly and pregnant women). The vaccine works in a completely different way to traditional flu jabs. Instead of targeting the proteins on the outside of the virus, which vary from strain to strain, the new vaccine aims to target molecules inside the virus that are common to all strains. It could provide rapid and broad immunity against flu infection and could also provide a booster for pre-existing immunity in adults and the elderly, which may have diminished over time.

Immunocore will take forward the clinical development of a new targeted therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer. The company has developed a new class of biologic drug which recognises changes within cells so can be used to treat diseases — such as prostate cancer — that are not currently amenable to targeted biological therapies. Targeted therapies represent a significant advance over traditional chemotherapy because they selectively attack the cancer and not the rest of the body. Immunocore’s project will develop a drug suitable for use in prostate cancer and will culminate in testing the safety and efficacy of this targeted therapy in patients with the disease.

Taking into account contributions to the projects from the participating companies, the total value of the research, evaluation, development and demonstration work to be undertaken by the 32 projects exceeds £63 million.