Business engagement and innovation
I am an Associate Professor based in the Living Systems Institute. My group’s research is focused on developing new technologies for drug-target discovery and applying those new methods to find new therapies for a range of different diseases.
Working with colleagues in the Innovation, Impact and Business team (IIB) and the wider Faculty Business Engagement and Innovation team, I am passionate about helping people to identify the potential of their research for generating impact through commercialisation or partnership with industry.
Professor Benjamin Housden
Director of Business Engagement and Innovation
Within the Department of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences (CBS), our partners will have access to a broad range of world-class expertise and state-of-the-art research facilities. We work closely with our partners across our core thematic areas, offering a flexible and tailored approach to each engagement. The following provides different modes of interaction and collaboration.
- Access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities
- R&D collaboration projects
- PhDs and industrial fellowships
- Contract Research & Consultancy
Knowledge exchange activities
- Joint appointments and secondments
- Knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) projects
Training and professional development
- Degree Apprenticeships
- Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
- Specialised training
Key areas of expertise and capabilities
Our partners will have access to a diverse range of expertise and resources in Clinical and Biomedical Sciences, including:
- Diabetes, obesity and metabolic health
- Neuroscience and CNS disease
- Healthy ageing and chronic disease
- Target identification and drug repurposing
- Data science and artificial intelligence
- Clinical trials
- Experimental medicine
CBS and the wider University includes state-of-the-art facilities and related expertise, which can be accessed by our partners.
- Long and short read sequencing
- Single cell sequencing
- Oxford Nanopore sequencing
- Quantitative Imaging Cytometry
- Single Cell Genomics
- Computational biology and bioinformatics
- Biological services unit
- Clinical trials unit
- Aquatics resource centre
- Metabolomics facility
- Bio-imaging facility
- PET and MRI imaging centre
Industry And Academic Partnership In Developing Type 1 Diabetes Genetic Risk Biochip
A successful partnership between the University of Exeter and Randox, a global leader within the in vitro diagnostics industry, sees the development of a diagnostic biochip to assess the genetic risk of individuals developing type 1 diabetes. With significant potential for further advancements in research and diagnostics, this active collaboration highlights how industry and academia can work together to accelerate healthcare innovation.
As an Associate Professor in Diabetes at the University of Exeter Medical School, Dr Richard Oram specialises in the study of the biology of beta cell loss in type 1 diabetes and the clinical impact of persistent beta cell function. Working alongside Dr Michael Weedon and Professor Andrew Hattersley, in 2014, Richard developed a method of assessing genetic risk as a single number – a genetic risk score (GRS) – that can be used to help classify what type of diabetes people have and predict future type 1 diabetes. But to deliver a clinical test, the research would need a collaborative partnership with a global innovator in healthcare diagnostics.
Unlocking the potential of a type 1 diabetes GRS
Richard’s early research on type 1 diabetes included studying people with varying levels of beta cell destruction and the study of extreme early-onset type 1 diabetes diagnosed in infants under a year old. One key question was whether aggregating data for someone's genetic risk for type 1 diabetes could be turned into a single number – a genetic risk score – and could be used to help understand the disease process or even correctly identify the type of diabetes someone had.
In parallel, it’s become increasingly apparent that there is a significant issue of incorrect classification of type 1 diabetes presenting in adulthood as type 2 diabetes, affecting treatment and complications risk. Richard asked that if a ‘person’ sits in the overlap of whether they might have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, can their genes be used to work out which type it is? The answer was yes, and the GRS was a valuable diagnostic tool.
Revolutionising diagnosis with the type 1 diabetes GRS diagnostic tool
With the common confusion and misdiagnosis of type 1 or type 2 diabetes, it’s estimated that up to half of people with diabetes receive the wrong treatment. This information was a good indicator that a diagnostic test would be a simple method of correct diagnosis. But alongside accurate type 1 and type 1 diabetes diagnosis, the GRS research and classification model can also help:
- Identification diagnostics to understand which people with diabetes may have a genetic mutation causing it and need genome sequencing to make the diagnosis
- Predictive diagnostics to learn whether or not someone will develop diabetes in the future
All research showed that it was relatively easy to generate a GRS for Richard and the team’s studies and that it was clinically valuable. The next step was to translate the research into a user-friendly and affordable diagnostic test that can be widely adopted worldwide – and find a healthcare diagnostics company that could make it a reality.
The path to regulatory approval with Randox
Essential Proximity to Discovery funding and further Confidence in Concept funding was made available by the Medical Research Council in 2015. These resources gave Richard the necessary pilot funding to partner with British healthcare diagnostics company, Randox, which expressed enthusiasm to work with them on the project.
Over four years, Randox developed a type 1 diabetes GRS diagnostic biochip that uses genetic markers and a robust algorithm to assess an individual's genetic risk for type 1 diabetes accurately. Randox’s continued commitment meant a push for regulatory approval on the biochip in the UK and the USA to commercialise it as a diagnostic for prediction or classification to clinicians or other researchers.
As a first-generation type 1 diabetes biochip, Richard continues collaborative research with Randox to advance its potential. And to further the partnership, Randox has committed a research grant of over £2m to study genetic risk scores for other autoimmune diseases, including coeliac disease and multiple sclerosis.
Industry and academia partnerships to accelerate innovation
Together with highlighting the continued importance of improving disease prediction and prevention, the collaboration between the University of Exeter and Randox showcases the power of interdisciplinary partnerships between industry and academia in advancing healthcare.
While Richard was heavily involved in the discovery research and the understanding of the clinical need for a diagnostic, the knowledge and expertise of Randox in the development, manufacture, and regulatory approval of the biochip made it a reality.
With neither team being able to achieve the same results without the other, recognising the strengths both sides can offer to accelerate healthcare innovation is the key to a successful industry/academia partnership.
Dr Richard Oram is an Associate Professor in the Department of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Exeter Medical School, a Diabetes UK Harry Keen Fellow, and a consultant physician. His specialist interests include the biology of type 1 diabetes, beta cell function in type 1 diabetes, and the clinical impact of persistent beta cell function.
SENISCA: A University Of Exeter Spin-Out Company Discovers New Hallmark Of Cellular Ageing
In discovering a new mechanism of cellular ageing, SENISCA, a University of Exeter spin-out company, is developing groundbreaking new interventions to target senescent cells. Alongside harnessing the anti-degenerative properties of this discovery for commercial skin health applications, the innovation has clinical potential to treat ageing diseases in patients with high, unmet clinical needs.
With her background in molecular genetics, Professor Lorna Harries’ research in gene regulation and RNA splicing led to the discovery of a new hallmark of cellular ageing in 2016. Following this, Lorna led a small team in the RNA-mediated disease mechanisms group at the University of Exeter to understand the mechanism in specific genes that can lead to systemic ageing, ultimately leading to the formation of SENISCA.
Discovery of target gene control switch
Most of the diseases of ageing don't arise because of a systemic breakdown in the body but rather because of the failure of some basic health maintenance mechanisms. When these mechanisms go wrong, our cells become stressed and begin to deteriorate. They acquire a range of new, adverse features, a process known as senescence.
The most important new function is the secretion of a set of chemical signals that tell surrounding cells to age. Those signals are now known to be the driver of systemic ageing. Having discovered that RNA splicing regulation alters during ageing, Lorna found that this can be manipulated by using DNA or RNA-based oligonucleotides that stick to the RNAs from the target genes and restore their expression.
Breakthrough for an officially recognised, druggable component
Further research revealed why the senescent cells differed and which specific genes controlled the RNA splicing regulation. By altering the activity of these, the team found the senescent cells, though still old, were rejuvenated. They regained many of the features of young cells and lost the ability to send out damaging chemical signals that age the body.
Following this breakthrough, and with sizeable funding from Innovate UK, Lorna and the team spent the following four years undertaking deeper research into the underlying mechanisms to identify the points of traction. As a result, an officially recognised, novel, and druggable component of the cellular ageing response, which can be specifically targeted for different pharmacological and skin health conditions, is now a reality.
Developing new and better treatments for diseases of ageing
In 2020, Lorna and other world-leading colleagues co-founded SENISCA, a platform RNA therapeutics biotech spin-out company from the University of Exeter. With additional seed investment, the company continues to work on three strands of development, with all human ex vivo testing being carried out at the University of Exeter, to develop new and better treatments of the diseases of ageing, including:
- Therapeutics - developing oligonucleotide drugs for the diseases of ageing
- Bioinformatics - analysing biological data to measure biological age in different tissues
- Skin health - developing topical treatments for dermatological skincare
The long-term, wider marketability of the therapeutics is expected to be between five to seven years, while the skin health products are hoped to be established within the next two years. The company is due to sign a co-development deal to supply materials to a global company in return for milestone payments and ongoing royalties. The materials will then be evaluated for trials before being incorporated into selected product lines.
SENISCA is also one of 12 companies worldwide, and the only one in the UK, to be shortlisted for the 2022/2023 Nature Spinoff Prize. This achievement comes after winning the OBN Best Start-up Biotech Award in 2021 and being nominated for the Reuters Pharma Awards in 2022.
Professor Lorna Harries is a Professor of molecular genetics in the Department of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Exeter Medical School. With a focus on RNA processing and gene regulation, she leads the RNA-mediated disease mechanisms group at the University of Exeter Faculty of Health and Life Sciences. She is also the Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of SENISCA and leads the company’s R&D team.
Leveraging University Collaboration For Enhanced Biotherapeutics Development
Successful collaborations between an Honourary Professor of Immunology working for a mid-size biotherapeutics company and the University of Exeter Medical School highlight the invaluable support the labs and medical staff provide in research and development. The collaborative efforts between the University and global pharma continue to accelerate innovative new pathways, leading to significant advancements in therapeutic development.
With an academic career in medical microbiology, biochemistry, and immunology, the work and research of Professor Paul Eggleton have allowed him to succeed in both academic therapeutic research and development at the University of Exeter and the business-led pharmaceutical industry, strengthening collaborative relationships between the two.
A unique collaboration opportunity
Joining the University of Exeter Medical School in 2002 as a Principal Investigator, Paul established research interests in immunology for the first time in the school’s history, alongside inflammation and autoimmunity in various diseases, primarily rheumatoid arthritis. However, his specialist research in immunology and neurology, specifically neuroinflammation, caught the interest of UCB Pharma, a biopharmaceutical company based in Brussels.
Joining the UCB Pharma team in 2017 as Associate Director of Immunology and Neuroinflammation, for the next four years, the role gave Paul the unique ability to work on developing new targets and drugs in the industry while continuing his position at the University of Exeter as an Honourary Professor, working on research and development into therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases.
While his industry role brought an essential revenue stream into the university, Paul also gained the freedom to discuss the research in a collaborative two-way process, leading to a joint paper on an innate immune pathway of inflammation that’s now a therapeutic target for degenerative diseases.
An academic connection fundamental to future funding
In 2021, Paul joined the UK R&D team of the Anglo-American-based firm Revolo Biotherapeutics as their Senior Director of Immunology. Revolo’s work on two particular chaperone molecules being trialled in patients – IRL201104 and IRL201805 – interested Paul, having previously discovered the potential of other chaperone proteins to take on immune properties, which can help suppress various diseases.
Aware of Paul’s academic position at the university, Revolo were keen for him and his team to collaborate on the science behind how the IRL201805 drug works. Since then, Revolo has continued to work closely with the university and Paul’s team alongside the Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in Exeter. Paul’s academic connection with the university was also fundamental to Revolo continuing their funding to accelerate their preclinical work.
The impact of shared expertise and knowledge
These examples highlight the importance of collaborative innovation and its benefits to both industry and academia in biotherapeutics. But a significant disconnect remains between the two, and pharmaceutical companies are mainly unaware of the considerable impact and outcomes the University of Exeter can bring, including:
Accelerated research and development: By leveraging the university's resources, biotech companies can experience increased research output and the pace of product development.
Enhanced development quality: The involvement of experienced university academic and medical staff in the research process can ensure high-value biotherapeutic development.
Strengthened partnerships: Long-term collaboration creates a strong bond between the biotech company and the university, encouraging future collaborative opportunities and knowledge exchange.
Collaborative innovation for the future
University research aims to develop therapeutics that could lead to a drug for currently incurable diseases or patients with unmet needs. By harnessing the university's laboratories, peer-reviewed and published research, and medical staff expertise, the pharma industry can accelerate product development and efficacy and attract future investment opportunities.
To achieve further innovative collaboration, both parties should be proactive in establishing a long-term, trusted relationship that will benefit not only the two institutions but the acceleration of drug development while providing a valuable and ongoing income stream for universities.
Professor Paul Eggleton is an Honourary Professor of Immunology in the Department of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Exeter Medical School and Senior Director of Immunology at Revolo Biotherapeutics. His specialist interests include autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases. https://revolobio.com
Watercress Plant Extract Used As An Effective Treatment For Skin Conditions
With key funding and private investment, a spin-out company, in collaboration with the University of Exeter’s CBS department and the NHS, discovers a natural, plant-based urease inhibitor to help protect against skin irritation. Beyond commercially available skin care products, the discovery has the potential to become a patented, medically-proven treatment.
Having seen the effects of infected nappy rash on a baby during a ward round as a junior doctor, Dr Kyle Stewart was interested in understanding the biochemistry behind the symptoms. After an introduction to Professor Paul Winyard, the duo sought funding and investment to develop a plant-based urease inhibitor as an effective treatment.
New research to identify natural urease inhibitors
Existing research suggested that nappy rash was primarily due to an alkaline chemical burn from ammonia on the skin caused by bacterial ureases (present in stools). The urease enzyme promotes the generation of caustic ammonia from the urea, which is present in urine. By researching further, Kyle discovered certain plants, specifically watercress, contained naturally-occurring urease inhibitors, which could be an alternative treatment for urease-induced bacterial skin conditions, including nappy rash.
With Paul’s background in biochemistry and having a specialist interest in human inflammation, Kyle’s initial research on the subject was built on by further laboratory-based experimentation. To take research to the next stage, Paul and Kyle applied to the Torbay Medical Research Fund (TMRF) – a local, independent charitable fund – for a research grant of around £50,000 to prove their concept that the watercress plant had the right molecular makeup to inhibit the urease enzyme.
Urease inhibitor concept proven
While there were some initial reservations from some TMRF trustee clinicians over the research, the grant was approved and proved pivotal to the project. Being successful in their first phase of research, Kyle and Paul subsequently gained additional grants of around £100,000 from TMRF over the next 18 months to continue their work.
As a result of this funding, a University of Exeter research fellow was employed to assist with in-house research and testing to prove the urease inhibitor concept. To build on this, new private investment totalling over £125,000 from a select group of local business investors allowed Kyle and Paul to develop the concept further and market it commercially.
Watercress Research Ltd formed as a commercial income stream
With the new investment and the investors’ collective industry knowledge and experience, Kyle and Paul co-founded Watercress Research Ltd in 2019, a spin-out company in collaboration between the University of Exeter and the NHS. Following this, a deal with a leading, independent Dorset-based watercress supplier created a supply of excess saleable and non-saleable stock for research and development, potentially saving waste and creating a new revenue stream for the supplier.
Additional venture capital fundraising in 2021 saw further funds of £300,000 invested into Watercress Research Ltd. Partially used for testing and trials, together with business and marketing costs, the investment also saw the purchase of bespoke custom equipment to develop the watercress extract for mainstream commercial use.
The future medical potential of a plant-based anti-inflammatory
With interest from several large skincare companies in buying bulk watercress extract for their topical products, alongside other bulk extract B2B opportunities, Kyle and Paul will launch their own range of topical skincare products in 2023.
Under the ‘Prof & Doc’ brand, products, including watercress serum, spray, barrier cream, and hand cream, will be available through their commercial website to help soothe, hydrate, and rejuvenate skin while protecting against irritation. More watercress-based products for different applications, including food, drink, and bio-plastics, are also in the pipeline.
While the commercial aspect will remain the key focus for Watercress Research Ltd, the generated product sales will yield a longer-term income stream. This income will help fund further research, tests, and trials into the medical aspects of the watercress extract over the next 5-10 years to produce a patented, medically-proven plant-based anti-inflammatory therapy.
Professor Paul Winyard is a Professor of Experimental Medicine in the Department of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Exeter Medical School and Chief Scientific Officer of Watercress Research Ltd. He specialises in biochemistry with a specialist interest in human inflammation. Dr Kyle Stewart is a GP partner in a Paignton surgery, an Honorary Research Fellow in Theoretical Medicine at the University of Exeter, and CEO of Watercress Research Ltd.
For more information about engagement opportunities within CBS, please contact Ben Housden: B.Housden@exeter.ac.uk