Two scientists who have developed a 3D human lung model that can assess the safety of new drugs without the use of animal testing have raised a £2m investment to scale their operations.
Dr Abigail Martin and Professor Victoria Hutter have secured backing from the MEIF Proof of Concept & Early Stage Fund, which is managed by Mercia Ventures and part of the Midlands Engine Investment Fund (MEIF), Mercia’s EIS funds and Pioneer Group. The funding will enable their company, ImmuONE, to move into new headquarters in Milton Keynes and new laboratories in Stevenage to meet the growing demand.
ImmuONE enables companies developing new products such as drugs, chemicals or cosmetics to meet legal requirements by showing they are safe to be inhaled. Current safety assessments typically require animal models, which are not accurate at predicting the impact on humans, or use human cells taken by lung-scraping, an invasive process that only provides tissue from the upper lung. There are limited human in vitro tools and assessments currently available to accurately study inflammation in the airways.
ImmuONE’s approach, which involves growing human lower lung tissue and immune cells in a laboratory to create a 3D model, not only enables companies to avoid the use of animals but also allows them to test the impact of their products on the small airways and inflammation in the lung, providing results that are more reliable and reproducible. ImmuONE aims to transform the field of inhalation toxicology, applying newer assessment techniques such as cell painting to understand immune responses in the lungs, enabling their customers to make better informed decisions earlier in the product development process.
The model was developed by Abigail during her PhD research at the University of Hertfordshire. She joined forces with Victoria, her supervisor, to set up the business in 2019. They now have around 20 customers globally including blue-chip chemical and consumer products companies. Since its launch two years ago, the biotech company has generated over £1m in revenue.
ImmuONE, which has been operating from university premises, is now in talks with a string of other leading brands. The funding will enable it to expand capacity, continue its research and development, grow its team and create six new jobs.
Dr Abigail Martin said: “Having worked on drug development projects that involve animal testing, I’ve seen the difference that new drugs can make to patients’ lives. However, I felt there had to be a better way and set out to look for an alternative. Our model not only enables companies to move away from animal testing but also improves safety for patients too. We look forward to working with many more clients and scaling the business with a view to global expansion in the future.”
Hannah Tapsell of Mercia added: “Around 90% of drugs shown to be safe and effective in animals do not work as planned in humans, which is one reason for the high failure rate in drug discovery. With growing demand for more effective testing models and pressure from consumers to replace animal testing, ImmuONE fills a clear gap in the market. Abigail and Victoria have not only created a powerful innovation but also achieved remarkable success in building a fast-growing business.”
Dr Imelda Juniarsih, Investment Associate Director at Pioneer Group, said: “We are proud to have invested in ImmuONE, a groundbreaking company which by replacing animal testing with a new model, it has the potential to revolutionise the field of drug development and meet new business demands. As champions of innovation in the biotech sector, we look forward to supporting ImmuOne in the next steps of its exciting journey.”
Mark Wilcockson, Senior Investment Manager at British Business Bank, said: “The Midlands Engine Investment Fund is known for investing in innovative SMEs across the Midlands region. This new MEIF investment in ImmuONE is a perfect example showcasing its commitment to supporting small businesses making strides in their respective sectors. This funding will allow ImmuONE to continue to change the way drug testing is practised, drive change, expand the business and create new jobs.”
The Midlands Engine Investment Fund is supported financially by the European Union using funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020 and the European Investment Bank.