Re-imagining how we diagnose disease
In stopping disease, early diagnosis is key, but hampered by expensive and time consuming blood tests. But what if we could diagnose disease as easily as we can measure glucose levels? Meet the Oxford University spinout answering that question: Osler Diagnostics.
By Gregg Bayes-Brown, Marketing and Communications Manager, Oxford University Innovation
Innovation pouring from Oxford’s Department of Chemistry has proven to be some of the most impactful to have emerged from the University.
It is in the same department that Allen Hill, Tony Cass and Graham Davis developed the blood glucose monitoring test. Commercialised by MediSense, an Oxford company that went on to be sold to Abbott Laboratories in the mid-1990s for $800m, the technology changed the lives of millions of diabetics around the world. Then in 2005, research at the Department of Chemistry led to the spinning out of Oxford Nanopore, which is developing a handheld DNA sequencer and is now worth over $1bn.
Now, Professor Jason Davis, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University’s Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory, looks to make it a hat trick.
Davis’ work is underpinning a new Oxford spinout, Osler Diagnostics, which is aiming to become the blood glucose monitoring test of diagnosing and monitoring disease.
“The development of many diseases can be halted with early enough intervention,” explained Davis. “The problem is that by the time people become symptomatic, it can be too late.”
Osler is looking to change that. Through identifying key proteins which act as markers of diseases, Davis believes they can catch a number of conditions — including oncological, cardiovascular and neurological diseases — years before they happen. Rapid-onset conditions too, like heart attacks or infections, could be diagnosed quicker, cheaper and easier.
“The questions for Osler are how do we conveniently spot these conditions early, and is there a way we can sample bodily fluids in a convenient and scalable way?”
At present, blood tests rarely take place before a patient is symptomatic, and so by the time of test, their disease has had time to progress. Tests themselves are unpleasant and inconvenient — they involve taking a blood sample in a clinical setting, and sending it off to a hospital laboratory for testing. Patients can wait up to three weeks for a result to come back, and for those in need of a rapid answer, the wait can prove fatal.
Enter Osler Diagnostics. The company is commercialising Davis’ research with the aim of producing a simple, cheap yet effective handheld disease diagnostics device that is as easy to use as its famous cousin, the blood glucose monitoring test.
In much the same way that diabetics test their glucose levels using a pinprick of blood in the morning, people would be able to find out whether there is trouble on the horizon over breakfast, and take steps to treat the condition before it gets out of hand. At the same time, devices could sit in GPs offices, ambulances, and emergency departments, facilitating immediate chronic and critical care diagnostics.
“The device can be swish — internet-of-things enabled, Bluetooth, backed by an app, connected over wifi,” said Davis. “But at the same time, the basic technology is incredibly cost effective. We can make it cheap so it can be deployed in the developing world, which would make it an invaluable tool if and when we face another Ebola or Zika-style outbreak.”
The device works by looking for a specific protein marker of a disease. However, with 30,000 proteins to look for, in a complex medium like blood, looking for one can be a needle in a haystack situation.
Davis needed to find a way to produce a selective and sensitive sensor that was scalable, small, cheap, and quick, and he found the answer in an electrochemical solution.
“ We added molecular polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) to the sensor, which allows us to be highly selective in what we respond to,” said Davis. “We then integrate specific antibodies and apply a small oscillating voltage wave whilst analysing current to measure impedance. The sensor chip with its chemistry plus impedance based analysis ultimately gives us our diagnostic platform.”
The potential applications for the technology are vast. From catching pancreatic cancer early enough to prevent the condition from falling into freefall, to identifying neurological conditions before neurons become irreversibly damaged, Osler’s technology could have impact across the medical diagnostics space.
There are challenges for the company as it develops. First, it must decide what areas to focus on first — opting to either go for validated markers, such as with heart disease or diabetes, or for identifying new ones. There is also the issue of managing the data that would come from the devices.
“Osler needs to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket that no one is ready for,” said Davis. “If this was rolled out across the UK tomorrow, where does all the data go? The NHS isn’t ready for it yet. Will the data go to the GP, and can they manage it if it does? Or is it an idea to build the infrastructure which can manage that information first?”
It is still early days for Osler. The company is yet to make a formal announcement of its existence to the wider world, let alone take on the challenges that lie in the spinout’s journey in the years ahead. Even so, the excitement is palpable.
“This could do away with a reliance on hospital blood tests as a means of picking up disease, reduce analytical error, tests can cost as little as a pound, it’s incredibly fast, and you can look for as many markers as you want,” said Davis. “This is the future.”
Gregg Bayes-Brown is the Marketing and Communications Manager for Oxford University Innovation. You can follow him on Twitter at @GreggBayesBrown, and you can follow OUI for more blog posts and innovation news at @OxUInnovation. You can also follow Oxford University Department of Chemistry at @OxfordChemistry.
Note on Osler: Osler is yet to be formally announced to the wider world, but more news will be available soon. Interested journalists and other parties are encouraged to contact Gregg for more information via email@example.com