Each month we will profile an innovative, growing company from across The Golden Triangle of Cambridge, London and Oxford. This month we speak to Jonathan Allis, CEO of Oxford-based molecular imaging diagnostics company, Blue Earth Diagnostics.
What is Blue Earth Diagnostics?
We have been around for about four years, as a spinout from GE Healthcare. We develop radiopharmaceutical imaging agents that are used to help guide the treatment of patients with cancer. We have a product – called Axumin® (fluciclovine (18F)) – which is a novel molecular imaging agent for use with positron emission tomography (PET) that has been commercially available in the US for just over a year and was approved in Europe about four months ago. It can sometimes be difficult to detect cancer or cancer recurrence with standard imaging tests, and our aim is to develop more specific imaging agents that have the potential to provide doctors with additional, useful information.
From a company point of view, we have about 20 staff in the UK and 40-50 in the US, many based in our Boston office, as the US is currently our biggest market. It’s a great environment, and we are working on some fascinating things – and we have a lot of fun along the way.
Can you tell us how Blue Earth Diagnostics came about?
We established the company based on technology that we were able to license from GE Healthcare. Fluciclovine is a synthetic radiolabelled amino acid that is preferentially taken up by certain types of cancer cells. The molecule itself was actually invented in the late 1990s at Emory University in Atlanta, and the compound was licensed to a Japanese company, before being taken over by GE Healthcare in the late ‘00s. At GE, it was one of about 20 pipeline products being worked on at that time, but other things were taking priority. It had been studied in a large number of patients, and I thought the data looked fantastic, so I proposed that we did a spinout to work solely on that. The advantage of us being a small, spinout company was that we could focus in a way that perhaps a larger company couldn’t.
It is now available in over 250 hospitals and medical imaging centres in the US and with the recent EU approval we are available in Austria and Norway. We expect Axumin to become available in other European countries during 2018.
How was it managing such a big clinical trial programme?
At the time of submitting for US and EU approval, over 800 people in the USA, Italy and Norway had received an Axumin scan. The majority of this work was well underway when we took the compound over from GE. Subsequently, we have conducted two clinical studies, one in the US and one in the UK. Preliminary results from the UK trial have just been presented at a scientific meeting in the US.
What is next in the pipeline?
We are starting to look at conducting studies in patients with other types of cancer. We want to broaden the role for Axumin PET imaging and to continue to build our R&D and commercial teams here and in the US.
Blue Earth Diagnostics is backed by investment firm Syncona, can you tell us how you got to that stage, and the types of investment rounds you went through?
We have been very lucky with investment as I know a lot of people who struggle and each round can be a huge distraction and pain. Syncona started out as the venture arm of the Wellcome Trust, and they remain a major shareholder. I approached them at the very beginning as I thought it was an interesting asset we could build a company around. This is crucial – alongside the science, you need to have a good business case.
What was clear is that there are significant unmet medical needs in detection of recurrent prostate cancer, and potentially, other cancers, too. The Syncona team liked our approach and they provided Series B and then C funding, which was about £35m all in all.
Most people don’t have that opportunity from a single investor, and for us the bonus was that they are involved and want to see it through to market, as opposed to wanting a return and to sell the company as quickly as possible.
Why did you choose to base yourself in Oxford?
There is a very cynical view that it is because I live in Oxford, but of course that’s not true!
We started out in London and it was great to be co-located with investors at Wellcome Trust. When we decided to move on, we wanted a place with a well-developed infrastructure, a scientific community, and somewhere easy to get in and out of. Oxford ticked all the boxes.
There is a vibrant scientific culture in Oxford, so you feel part of a community of likeminded people, which is also helpful for recruiting. We have very good links with academics in Oxford and continue to do conduct clinical studies there. It also helps that Oxford is a lovely environment generally.
Looking wider than Blue Earth Diagnostics, what is exciting you in the sector?
Particularly in cancer, there are astonishing new things happening. New technologies such as immunotherapy and sophisticated diagnostics mean that cancer is no longer a death sentence. There are some ‘ones to watch’ from those backed by Syncona, such as Freeline Therapeutics and Nightstar Therapeutics, who are making gene therapy happen – that is fascinating.
And finally, has Brexit had an impact on your business?
In terms of direct impact so far, most of our revenue is in dollars and the pound fell significantly, so I guess that is a ‘Brexit Bonus’. Longer term challenges include the uncertainty that Brexit has created for our team of talented European employees.
Find out more about Blue Earth Diagnostics here