YTKO-managed Enterprise Fellowship supports first company – mimicking body’s defences to detect disease

Aptuscan Ltd has spun out of the work of Dr Paul Ko Ferrigno from the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine. He is one of 65 Enterprise Fellows sponsored by Yorkshire Forward, and managed by YTKO, who are exploring ways in which to turn their research into commercial businesses, and was the first of the latest round of Fellows to turn his research into a company.

Dr Ko Ferrigno, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds, explains; “As a biologist, I have done a fair amount of research in my field, but I wanted to apply my knowledge to the real world, to create a solution to a real problem.

“The key to successful treatment of a disease is early diagnosis – drugs are much more effective when they are used at an early stage – so I have been looking at how I can copy the body’s own mechanism for identifying disease, which we know to be the production of antibodies.

“The diagnostic industry has relied upon antibodies for a long time now, but there are many, many examples of this technology failing to meet clinical standards. What we now have is a way to copy the body’s defence mechanism in a test tube, and so make artificial probes that can be used instead of antibodies for diagnosis”

“I had the option to keep doing my research and hope a company picked it up, or to work with the University and IP Group to set up a company of my own – I chose the latter option, and the Fellowship has been instrumental in guiding my decision-making.

“The YTKO team running the Fellowships has taught me how to switch off my research brain and engage a commercial one. With the mentoring support and business planning expertise provided by the Enterprise Fellowship scheme, I can now explain my ideas to people in a way that means something to them, and that means that I can progress my company and its work.”

Jim Farmery, Assistant Director of Business at Yorkshire Forward explains;

“There is a huge amount of knowledge and talent in our regional universities, particularly in the area of healthcare technologies, which is a growing global market, but the skills of the people behind them are generally in science, not business.

“The Enterprise Fellowships are designed to provide not just financial support to help the Fellows take their ideas forward, but also the business mentoring and commercial skills that enable them to bridge that gap between the lab and the boardroom, and help get their research on its way to the marketplace where it can make a real difference.

Dr Ko Ferrigno’s research focuses on mimicking the protein molecules – or antibodies – that the body releases when it recognises a disease is present, but using a much simpler molecule, and an even simpler process.

By engineering artificial antibodies that are fit-for-purpose, Dr Ko Ferrigno hopes to enable the creation of a device that will rapidly diagnose a number of diseases.

Although creating artificial antibodies is not new as a technique for treating disease – the well known cancer drug Herceptin is based on mimicking the body’s own cancer fighting antibodies – using them to diagnose such a wide range of diseases is entirely new.

At the moment Dr Ko Ferrigno’s research is focused on identifying just how broadly applicable the technology will be. The human genome sequence reveals approximately 25,000 basic proteins to identify, each of which can be made in multiple forms and each of which is two thousand million times smaller than a pin head. He anticipates it may take several years to make an artificial antibody against each protein. Once Dr Ko Ferrigno and his team have successfully identified a large number of antibody mimics, work can start on a device that will help doctors to identify disease easily.

As well as the Enterprise Fellowship, the company is also being supported by MRC Technology – the commercial arm of the Medical Research Council – and IP Group, a company who work closely with the University of Leeds to invest in and commercialise novel technologies.

Dr Ko Ferrigno concludes;

“My work isn’t going to be finished overnight – it will take many years to complete, but the impact on diagnosing patients and the effectiveness of their ensuing treatment could be huge.”

The Yorkshire Forward Enterprise Fellowships are managed by YTKO, and have resulted in 13 spin-out companies and over £4 million of leveraged funding for the projects. They have been designed to encourage the commercialisation of the Yorkshire region’s cutting edge research and innovation.

About LIMM: The Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine (LIMM) is a research Institute of the University dedicated to defining the molecules involved in human diseases, and using this knowledge to develop novel therapies and new drugs. www.limm.leeds.ac.uk
About The University of Leeds: The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK’s eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University’s vision is to secure a place among the world’s top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk
About YTKO: YTKO, based in Cambridge, UK, and with offices in Yorkshire, Norfolk, Cornwall, France and Greece, are award-winning practitioners in commercialising innovative ideas and technologies, in supporting women’s enterprise, in creating and animating sectors and clusters, and in developing innovation and collaboration networks, working across the UK and throughout Europe.