Imperial College London

Imperial White City Incubator companies pivot in response to COVID-19

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The MediSieve team in the laboratory

MediSieve is developing a magnetic filtration system to extract cytokines from blood

Companies at Imperial’s startup incubator are adapting their technology and applying their skillsets to help the fight against the pandemic.

Companies at Imperial’s startup incubator are adapting their technology and applying their skillsets to help the fight against the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has required everyone to change the way they work, but some companies at the Imperial White City Incubator are also adapting their products in response to the pandemic.

Life sciences company MediSieve, chemical startup FreshCheck and biochemistry enterprise Affinity Biomarker Labs have identified opportunities to pivot their technologies in this challenging time to help treat COVID-19 patients and keep people safe.

Treating the cytokine storm

MediSieve are developing a magnetic filtration system as a precision tool for doctors to extract harmful substances from blood. The company moved into the Incubator in 2018 and last year they received funding from Innovate UK to develop their platform to treat sepsis through the removal of pathogens and damaging cytokines from the blood.

As the pandemic progressed, data showed that one concerning symptom in COVID-19 patients was the high level of the inflammatory cytokine interleukin 6 (IL-6) in the blood. Although part of the immune system’s response to the virus, high levels of cytokines – commonly known as cytokine storms - can cause organ failure or death. As MediSieve were working on the technology to remove cytokines for sepsis treatment they decided to pivot their technology as a potential way to remove IL-6 from the blood of COVID-19 patients.

“The current treatment for excess levels of IL-6 in COVID-19 patients involves drugs that supress or block the immune system,” explained Dr Cristina Blanco-Andujar, Chief Technology Officer at MediSieve. “But it’s not ideal to give someone who is trying to fight an infection a drug that subdues the immune system and remains in the body. We want to use our technology to tune that approach so we can remove IL-6 at the time it is causing harm but then stop this process as soon as cytokine levels are manageable so the patient’s immune system can continue to function.”

MediSieve have quickly refocussed their work on treating this aspect of COVID-19 and are hoping to do pre-clinical safety trials in animals later this year and clinical trials next year. With current restrictions in place they have not only adapted their technology but also their way of working. “The Incubator have been really helpful and supportive during this time,” commented Dr Blanco-Andujar. “So that we can continue our research and even accelerate to respond to the pandemic whilst still working under safe conditions.”

As well as adapting their technology, MediSieve have also helped in the pandemic by 3D printing components for Personal Protective Equipment, responding to a call to redeploy equipment and facilities for this purpose in which they were joined by other Imperial groups. It is this community spirit that MediSieve cite as an important attribute of the White City campus, along with access to expertise, facilities, opportunities for collaboration and being able to expand into the space they need. “For a small company that is growing, it’s difficult to predict where we will be in the future, especially when events like the current pandemic happen,” said Dr Blanco-Andujar. “The Incubator is flexible with what it offers in terms of space, recognising the benefit this can bring to companies like us and the wider ecosystem, especially at times like these.”

Spray protection

FreshCheck’s innovative spray provides a cheap and rapid method to identify and prevent bacterial and chemical contamination by simply changing colour when applied to a surface. Originally targeted at the food industry, the FreshCheck spray is now receiving interest from a broader range of industries who are looking to ensure hygiene during the pandemic.

FreshCheck team in the lab with their food hygiene detector spray
The FreshCheck team is using their food hygiene spray to help maintain hygiene in the era of COVID-19

Although the FreshCheck spray doesn't directly detect COVID-19, it does verify that a surface is clean and without contamination which, by proxy, is a good indication that it is virus-free. It is also much cheaper and easier to implement than current tests to directly detect the presence of COVID-19.

“Our mission has always been to make a hygiene test that is more affordable,” said Dr John Simpson, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at FreshCheck. “Allowing more people to access a scientific gold standard to demonstrate cleanliness. With the arrival of COVID-19, the issue of surface contamination became a priority for everyone making accessibility and affordability even more important.”

With the wider range of customers approaching FreshCheck, the team are now iterating their product for more functionality in the non-food industry. By reducing its sensitivity to chemicals, whilst maintaining its ability to detect bacteria the spray avoids needlessly flagging high levels of chemical cleaning products, something that would be a concern in food preparation but is not in office or transport locations. The FreshCheck team is also planning to accelerate the development of their handwipes which they believe will have universal appeal as a means to check cleanliness and hygiene.

“It’s a matter of tuning the chemistry and getting the metrics right for these new products,” commented Dr Simpson. “So that we can make FreshCheck more specialised for different industries and develop alternative ways for it to be applied, making it as available as possible to those who need it.”

FreshCheck believes that their sense of agility has been built into their company from an early stage. All three co-founders have studied for PhDs in the Chemical Biology of Health and Disease from Imperial College London and were encouraged to take up opportunities for entrepreneurism and innovation during their degrees. The company took part in the Enterprise Lab Venture Catalyst Challenge in 2015, received support from the Imperial Advanced Hackspace and since then has gone from strength to strength, moving into the Incubator at the beginning of 2018.

“Location is key for a small company like us,” explained Alex Bond, Co-founder and CEO of FreshCheck. “By their very nature startups can be agile and think on their feet but they also need the right environment and space to be able do this. Since we’ve been at the Incubator we’ve managed to get the support, flexibility and networking opportunities when and where we need it which has been very helpful.”

Antibody Testing

Affinity Biomarker Labs are experts in qualifying, validating and testing blood-based proteins that can be used as indicators of a disease or condition to aid clinical decision making.

Based at the Imperial White City Incubator since 2018, the company’s mission is to assist in the discovery, verification, validation and analysis of novel biomarkers, particularly in areas of high unmet need. With the outbreak of COVID-19, they have directed this mission towards testing for antibodies in the blood that are produced as part of the immune response following COVID-19 infection. At the end of February, the company launched the SARS-CoV-2 serology testing which uses fully automated platforms to test for the levels of two antibodies - IgM and IgG - in whole blood, serum or plasma.

Unlike methods that directly detect the presence of the virus, antibody tests help determine whether the individual being tested was ever infected, even if that person never showed symptoms. As such these serological tests for COVID-19 antibodies play an important role in understanding the virus’s epidemiology in the general population and identifying groups at higher risk for infection.

Adaptable space

The Imperial White City Incubator has always prided itself on its flexibility and ability to meet the changing needs of its residents, recognising the added value that this can add to a workspace.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Incubator has taken its flexibility a step further, by adapting to a huge shift in working practices to ensure that its residents can continue the important work they are doing within a safe working environment.

 “Flexibility has been key in supporting our clients to continue to work on their essential research during the lockdown,” says Graham Hewson, Head of Incubation at the Imperial White City Incubator. “Our companies couldn’t pause and as a result, we couldn’t either. Imperial Thinkspace has supported the Incubator to remain open for business and it has been awe-inspiring to see companies such as MediSieve, FreshCheck and Affinity Biomarker Labs successfully pivoting to face the pandemic.”

 

 

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Franca Davenport

Franca Davenport
Communications and Public Affairs

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Public-health, Global-challenges-Health-and-wellbeing, Enterprise, Campus-developments, Alumni, Women-at-Imperial, Viruses, Entrepreneurship, Coronavirus, Infectious-diseases, White-City-Campus, Immune-system
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