Herts spin-out raises £2m for first-of-its-kind, ‘3D human lung’ to replace pharmaceutical animal testing

 1 January 2023 29 November 2023
29 November 2023

A University of Hertfordshire spin-out company has been awarded £2m funding to advance a ‘3D human lung’ being hailed as a revolutionary alternative to animal testing for new drugs and chemical compounds.

Biotech company ImmuONE, founded by Dr Abigail Martin and Herts Professor of In Vitro Toxicology, Victoria Hutter – the scientists also behind the innovative ‘3D human lung’ – has secured a £2m investment from the MEIF Proof of Concept & Early-Stage Fund, managed by Mercia Ventures, and Pioneer Group, to expand their company, progress their research and meet growing demand.

The funding will enable ImmuONE, which has so far been based at the University of Hertfordshire, to scale up, moving into larger headquarters in Milton Keynes, opening new laboratories in Stevenage and recruiting six more employees.

It’s an impressive scaling up for the Herts spin out, which started from humble beginnings less than five years ago when the idea of the ‘3D human lung’ was first developed. The brainchild of Dr Martin, who wanted to innovate a way for respiratory testing of any sort of chemical or particles that we might inhale that didn’t require animal testing, she created the first prototype as part of her PhD under the supervision of Professor Hutter while studying at Herts.

“Having worked on drug development projects that involve animal testing, I’ve seen the difference that new drugs can make to patients’ lives,” Dr Martin explains. “However, I felt there had to be a better way and set out to look for an alternative.”

She discovered that growing human lower lung tissue and immune cells in a laboratory, that are then moulded into a 3D alveolar ‘lung’ model, was that better alternative. Not only did it better represent human physiology than animals, which can be unreliable at predicting the impact of new drugs and substances on humans, this new in-vitro innovation could also be developed to allow companies to test the impact of their products on small airways and inflammation in the lung, providing more reliable and reproducible results and potentially transforming the field of inhalation toxicology.

It was a eureka discovery that clearly had serious potential for real-world impact - and Dr Martin wasn’t the only one who knew it. While doing her PhD, the University’s Technology Transfer Office in its Enterprise and Business Development department encouraged her to apply for Innovate UK’s Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) programme for the South England region, an intensive 12-week programme enabling a cohort of innovators to validate a market for their technology. She applied, was successful, and had a life-changing experience that not only took her across the world - with her visiting eight countries and making connections across four continents – but also set her on a path to commercial success.

“The experience itself was so empowering,” she says. “In academia you don’t usually get a chance to go out and test if there is a market for academic inventions, and the opportunity to do this was invaluable in letting me evaluate my technology and how it might be used. I got to exhibit at tradeshows and industry conferences attended by anywhere between 100 and 45,000 people and ask them about the problems they face with current lung models, what works and doesn’t work for them, and identify ways in which we could improve the technology.”

The overwhelming positive response to her new technology made Dr Martin certain of its potential – and also that she needed to act quickly to either set up a spin out company or license her innovation. So, while still completing her PhD, and with the help of Dr Hutter and the University’s Enterprise and Business Development team, she submitted an application for another Innovate UK competition for up to £300K in follow-on funding. Again, she was successful.

In 2019, using Innovate UK’s follow-on funding and a small investment from University of Hertfordshire, Professor Hutter joined forces with Dr Martin to set up ImmuONE; a company specialising in using in vitro cell culture modules constructed from continuous human cell lines to enable companies developing new products - from pharmaceutical drugs and agricultural chemical to cosmetics, adhesives and paints - to reliably test their product’s inhalation impact to ensure they meet legal requirements and most importantly are safe for human use.

Since being launched, and despite the unprecedented challenges of starting a new company at that time due to the Covid pandemic, the company has gone from strength to strength. ImmuONE has been successful in securing further grant funding f which has widened their portfolio of data which validates the product, as well as expanding   their network of customers and collaborators. They have also leveraged support from Innovate UK Edge’s Scaleup Programme to strengthen their Intellectual Property position and ‘investibility’ profile.

Today, ImmuONE works with 20 clients globally, including blue-chip chemical and consumer products companies, with that number expected to rise dramatically once the expansion has been completed. The spin out is also a huge success story for the University, showing just how – with the right support and guidance – a research project can be developed into a globally impactful, commercial enterprise.

The investment will enable ImmuONE to relocate to Sycamore House in Stevenage, becoming part of the burgeoning life science cluster in and around Stevenage, Hertfordshire. This area is quickly becoming a jewel in the crown for the life science industry in the UK. Heavily supported by the Herts Local Enterprise Partnership and with significant inward investment, Stevenage not only boasts significant industrial presence (e.g. GSK) but also is host to the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult and multiple high-growth life science businesses in Sycamore House and the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst Entrepreneurial Hub. ImmuONE is now ready to scale and take full advantage of the infrastructure the wider region offers to support bioscience innovation.

Professor Wendy Wills, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University of Hertfordshire said: “The University of Hertfordshire is committed to the effective translation of its excellent research and world-class innovation into real-world impact. ImmuONE is a fantastic example of just how our support can propel our brilliant innovators and their projects to the heights they deserve.”

Visit ImmuONE to find out how they may be able to support your development needs. If you’re a Herts academic, researcher or student with the next great spin-out idea, the University of Hertfordshire may be able to support you to realise your potential and that of your innovation - get in touch to see how we can help by emailing be@herts.ac.uk.

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