Cambridge Biotech week: Inventions made in Cambridge

Cambridge Biotech Week is upon on us! From the 25th-28th June, a multitude of events will take place across Cambridge aiming to accelerate the development of scientific ideas and facilitate growth of companies working at the forefront of healthcare and life sciences. Where there are innovative ideas, there are patents and Cambridge is often portrayed as one of the ‘most innovative cities’ in the UK.

In celebration of Cambridge Biotech Week, we highlight just a few examples of ground breaking patented biotech inventions that are ‘made in Cambridge’.

  • Phage Display – Sir Greg Winter/Cambridge Antibody Technology

Phage display uses engineered bacteriophages, which express proteins or targets of interest onto the surface of the phage, to screen libraries for binding partners. This technique has become commonplace in screening antibody and small molecules in drug discovery.  The ground-breaking technology was developed by Sir Greg Winter at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. The success of this technique has facilitated the discovery and application of some of the most globally successful antibody therapeutics. One of these includes the blockbuster drug Humira® (adalimumab), developed by Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT).

Sir Greg Winter won a share of the Nobel Prize in 2018 and the inventions he has worked on have been the subject of many academic publications and patents.

  • Cytosponge – Medical Research Council

The Cytosponge is an innovative ‘pill on a string’ which has been developed by researchers at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. The aim of the device is to help doctors detect oesophageal cancer at an early stage and has been trialed in patients at the NIHR Clinical Investigation Ward at the Cambridge Clinical Research Facility. It can also be used to detect Barrett’s Oesophagus, present in a small number of patients who have chronic heartburn or acid reflux, which can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.  This innovative device is a sponge contained with a small capsule which the patient swallows. The capsule dissolves, releasing the sponge which takes a sample of the tissue of the lining of the esophagus and can be pulled out by a nurse via a string attachment.

  • Owlstone Breath Biopsy

Owlstone Medical has developed Breath Biopsy® technology to identify non-invasive VOC biomarkers. This enables a non-invasive method of measuring chemicals in breath for disease detection, exposure monitoring and drug metabolism. Breath Biopsy® can measure the chemical composition of breath and can identify biomarkers for disease without the need for invasive and expensive surgery. Breath contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gaseous molecules that are produced at the end of many metabolic processes in the body. Thus, underlying changes in metabolic activity that are associated with certain disease states can be detected. The company who is led by entrepreneur and CEO Billy Boyle is collaborating with world leading big Pharma and the technology has been awarded the MacRobert Award from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

  • Illumina Sequencing – Solexa/Illumina

A well-known technique in molecular biology, the technology of sequencing has evolved rapidly over the last 20 years. Cambridge is the home of Illumina Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology which was developed in the 1990’s by Cambridge based scientists Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman who were using nucleotides with a fluorescent label to observe the motion of a polymerase at the single molecule level as it synthesized DNA immobilized to a surface. They founded the company Solexa (later acquired by Illumina) to develop their technology, which has fundamentally changed the type of questions scientists can answer and the data they can obtain. The original Human Genome Project took over 10 years to complete and costs nearly $3 billon. NGS however is considerably cheaper and provides a much higher throughput approach.

  • Diagnostic tests – Dr Helen Lee/Diagnostics for the Real World

Diagnostic test to test for diseases such as Chlamydia or HIV have been developed by Dr. Helen Lee, Associate Professor in Medical Biotechnology at Cambridge University. The Chlamydia test is able to identify more cases and can provide a rapid diagnosis in less than half an hour. The diagnostic kit is based on a single amplification-based assay for amplification of DNA allowing qualitative or semi-quantitative detection of analytes such as nucleic acid in plasma samples. The idea has resulted in a spinout company, Diagnostics for the Real World, that is providing the tests to developing countries where cases of Chlamydia are often difficult to diagnose. The test is easy to use and does not require expensive lab equipment or trained staff, making it invaluable in developing countries. Dr Lee has been honoured many times for her work, including winning the Popular Prize at the 2016 European Inventor Awards.

Cambridge continues to be one of the leading biotech clusters in the world. With businesses and innovations like those listed above, it is not surprising that Cambridge is such a hotbed of activity in the biotech space!


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