Stemnovate: using new technologies as an alternative to animal testing

I started my career as an academic and veterinarian, followed by almost 9 years of stem cell research that included working with cutting-edge technologies, like cellular reprogramming, before starting a biotech business, part of which is developing ‘organ-on-chip’ platforms as an alternative to animal testing for human drug development.

 

Most people may not realise it takes 10-15 years to launch a new drug, with an average cost of approximately 5 billion USD. Drug failures and withdrawal of drugs in the market are hugely expensive, as well as posing a great risk to patients. One of the biggest challenges in drug discovery is figuring out which new drugs are likely to be harmful before testing them on humans as there are physiological differences in animals and humans which range from genetic makeup, physiology, environment, and lifestyle - all of which may interact and limit the drug’s success for individual patients.

 

Stemnovate collaborates with the scientific community, SMEs and pharmaceutical companies across the globe to engineer a cost-effective and flexible microphysiological model systems. These are miniature models of human organs engineered to mimic biological functions, eg The ’liver on a chip’ platform. They can replicate the human liver by taking into account a patient's’ individual genetic background, which makes the technology more sensitive to individual patient’s circumstance.

 

This new technology allows us to identify problems earlier in the medicine development process and can reduce development cost by as much as $30M per product launch. At the same time, it also improves launch success rate by a quarter.

 

There is huge variability in drug response among the human population. According to Food and Drug Administration, FDA, the response rates may vary from 25% to 80% from cancer therapeutics to more common painkillers so the ‘one size fits all' approach currently dominant in drug development is suboptimal and often leads to drug failure putting patients at risk. Having the organ on a chip has multiple benefits. For starters, it is more ethical as the process does not involve animal or human testing, and is therefore also safer for the patients themselves.

 

I get inspiration from my mother who raised both me and my brother single-handedly so ‘gender bias’ was not much of a concern. I suppose it was this lack of gender bias that inspired me to start my own company, even though a new study from California institute reports that women-run-start-ups are hampered by bias among male investors.

 

I saw this first hand during my seed round of investment. All the investors I met were reputable Cambridge and UK based angels, and all were men. Although they were all very supportive, it took one and half year to reach this stage.

 

I suppose what I am saying is if commercial potential can be proven, there is opportunity for women entrepreneurs, and I would really like to see more women supporting each other during this phase. It’s a challenging endeavour to take up the entrepreneurial aspirations that can be considered a career risk by many, so support from other women could be hugely valuable.

 

And although for me my previous experience in stem cell research, regulation, academia, and industry was an advantage, it would have been impossible without my supportive husband and nine-year-old daughter, and equally supportive co-founders Dr. David Hay, who was my Ph.D. co-supervisor, and Dr. Adrian Fisher, whom I met while working as a postdoc at the University of Cambridge.

 

Stemnovate is a biotech company which delivers innovative drug-screening and safety-testing platforms, and has recently been awarded $1 million Innovate UK funding to advance ‘Liver on a chip’ technology. The technology will improve drug testing and help patients by increasing drug safety, effectiveness, with the potential to develop individually tailored medicine.

Stemnovate CEO and founder, Dr. Ruchi Sharma, has recently been recognized as a rising star among 50 outstanding women leaders who are driving scientific innovation.

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