Posted on Sunday 13 October 2013 by Ulster Business

Interview 25k

Kelly Moffit (left) and Lorraine Martin (right) of ProAx-SiS, Queen's University Belfast, pictured with Julie-Ann O'Hare of main sponsor Bank of Ireland, after being named the overall winner at the NISP CONNECT 25k Awards 2013.

A Queen's University Belfast team which is developing a range of novel medical diagnostic tests has been chosen as the overall winner of this year's NISP CONNECT 25k Awards.

The annual awards, sponsored by Bank of Ireland, are made under the NISP CONNECT entrepreneurship programme, which is based at the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast's Titanic Quarter.

ProAx-SiS have incorporated their patented "Protease-TagTM" technology into a range of easy to use home tests, which will work similar to a conventional pregnancy test to enable patients with chronic diseases to be monitored within the home.

In the first instance, their focus is on respiratory diseases such as cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – the collective name for lung diseases including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In these diseases, a protease (enzyme) biomarker can provide an early warning of an acute exacerbation that would normally require hospitalisation. Their test, NEATStikTM, which is a first to market product, with no competition, will prompt early treatment at home reducing the need for a hospital admission and more expensive, invasive treatment.

Dr Lorraine Martin, the founder of the company, said the company planned to initially use the £10,000 top prize and £3,000 from winning the Bio Tech category of the awards to develop its website, to access other funding and to raise the profile of the ProAx-SiS brand.

Dr Martin told Ulster Business the fledgling business will next month go before the board of Queen's spinout body QUBIS Ltd., to be formally instigated as a QUBIS company with additional external investment.

"We're working towards a three year plan. It will take us another nine months to have the device optimised to move into clinical trials. We are hoping to conduct a one year trial to test the device and really prove its utility in the home and clinic in terms of improvements to patient health and outcome," said Dr Martin.

"Things started to move very quickly in the last 18 months when we got a Medical Research Council Confidence in Concept award and then we also got financial support from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) in the US. That's been a fantastic endorsement for us."

Having first received a Proof of Concept grant from Invest NI in 2008 it has been a long journey for Dr Martin and her co-founder Professor Brian Walker, whose research had focused on Protease Tags for many years before entering the commercialisation process and forming ProAx-SiS.

Professor Walker commented: "I am delighted that the 25K award will act as a springboard for the realisation of the translational element of our research, with the ultimate goal of improving patient outcomes."

Dr Martin is hopeful the CFF will also help the company navigate the regulatory process required by the FDA in the US.

After initially launching in the UK for cystic fibrosis followed by the US and Europe markets, the company plans to very quickly move into the potentially more lucrative market for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

"That market potentially for our product could be worth about $6bn and if you include China the market nearly doubles," explained Dr Martin.

"We aim to launch for cystic fibrosis in the UK in year four and gain about 20% of the market, which would bring a profit of around £1m. That could expand to £30m in year five if we enter the COPD market," she added.

"In year five we want to then expand to launch in the EU and US in cystic fibrosis clinics. Because the same clinicians who are looking after CF patients are also looking after COPD patients, we don't think it is too big an extrapolation to say we'll get 10% of the UK COPD market by year five."

ProAx-SiS's victory in the 25K awards is the first for a biotech company and was apt on a night when the main speaker was Dr Peter Fitzgerald, founder of Randox Laboratories. Dr Martin said she would be interested in having a discussion with Randox to see if there are potential synergies with its biochip technology.

She believes that having decided to go into the multi-billion dollar diagnostics and point of care market, the company will also prove attractive to investors.

"Investors can be afraid of biotech. We're so excited to get a win for biotech at the 25K awards, it has been a long time in coming. Our product has a long lead time and a lot of regulation and validation processes to go through. But it is potentially a huge market."

Although concentrating initially on developing diagnostic tools for the clinical management of patients with respiratory diseases, ProAx-SiS also plans to develop a portfolio of similar tests suitable for use in the cardiovascular, infection and oncology areas.

Queen's University companies ADFerTech and Liopa emerged victorious in the Clean Tech and Software award categories respectively, while University of Ulster-based Eye-C-3D won the Hi-Tech category of the 25k Awards.

Other finalists on the night included: Jenarron Therapeutics (UU); Digitease (UU), Inkintelligent (QUB), Columbus (QUB), Xpress LF (QUB), Nite Rider (UU).

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