Matchmaking success for cancer diagnostics project
Pear Bio and NIHR London In Vitro Diagnostics win joint funding to progress artificial intelligence (AI) cancer diagnostic tool.
After meeting at the Collaborate to Innovate: London Diagnostics ‘speed dating’ event earlier this year, cancer diagnostics company Pear Bio and NIHR London In Vitro Diagnostics Cooperative have won joint funding from Innovate UK Biomedical Catalyst 2022 Round 1, which is focused on industry-led R&D.
Their collaborative project is the “Prospective Evaluation of Artificial Intelligence R&D tool for patient stratification in Pancreatic and Liver cancers (PEAR-PAL)”. The project is one of 44 chosen for funding in a highly competitive process, in which 284 applications were received and assessed.
To find out more about the joint project, we spoke with Pear Bio’s Product Manager Eleonora Peerani and Naoko Jones, Programme Manager, NIHR London In Vitro Diagnostics (IVD) Cooperative.
Q: Please tell us about Pear Bio and your approach to cancer diagnostics.
Eleonora: The problem we’re trying to tackle at Pear Bio is getting effective treatment to cancer patients, which has become more difficult because of an increasing number of emerging drug combinations. The question of which treatments a patient should get can’t always be answered by traditional methods such as genomics, as not all drugs work like that or have a specific genetic component.
So, we’ve built a way of visualising how the tumour grows, progresses and behaves over time in a condensed format outside of the patient’s body. We do so by combining an organ-on-a-chip platform and computer vision (a subset of AI). Using this platform, in just one week, we can test a lot of drugs in parallel. It accelerates what would normally happen in the clinic through complex and costly clinical trials that would usually take several months. We use the resulting data to predict response to treatment, and help clinicians decide which treatment(s) a specific patient would benefit from the most.
We are currently running a clinical trial in triple-negative breast cancer, with a second trial deemed to start in Q1 2023. We also have a grant through the MedCity Collaborate to Innovate programme to run PEAR-TREE, a study on kidney cancer. With this new joint project, we’re specifically targeting pancreatic and liver cancers.
Q: Why were you both interested in attending the Collaborate to Innovate event, and what attracted you to each other as potential partners?
Naoko: At London IVD, we’re concentrating on diagnostic medical devices at the moment, and the matchmaking event was a great opportunity, because not many events specifically focus on diagnostics. Another draw for us, was the specificity of the matchmaking, as the event was very focused on putting the companies who are looking for support with the counterparts who are offering such support. We learned that Pear Bio was intending to apply for the Innovate UK Biocatalyst grant application, which had quite a tight deadline, but one thing that really impressed us was that Pear Bio was very organised. We met Pear Bio at the end of April and the grant application was at the end of May, so we only had around 4 weeks, but Pear Bio’s effective communications helped us to put everything together before the deadline
Eleonora: We were at the event because we are part of the MedCity Collaborate to Innovate programme, so we were meeting for the first time with collaborators to run our kidney trial. We haven’t found many opportunities like this in London, so this event was a great opportunity. Then we saw the Biomedical Catalyst grant call was open, and thought it’d be a great opportunity to apply jointly with London IVD. Being a small start-up, we don’t really have the resources or time to run in-depth human factor analysis and patient interaction schemes ourselves, so having them as a partner has been invaluable.
Q: What is the scope of the project from Pear Bio’s perspective?
Eleonora: The name of the project is PEAR-PAL. PEAR stands for prospective evaluation of artificial intelligence R&D tool for patient stratification, and the PAL refers to the indications, pancreatic and liver cancers. With PEAR-PAL, we want to re-optimise our platform, specifically for pancreatic and liver cancers, and then test drugs specific to these two cancer types.
For this study, we’re also collaborating with King’s College Hospital. They’ll be sourcing fresh tissue from patients with these cancers. We’ll receive the tissue samples in our lab, and then extract all the viable cells from the tumour. We then grow the cells in 3D, into multiple organ-on-chips, using special formulations that we optimise for each cancer.
The first part of this trial will be to optimise the platform for these specific indications; the second will be optimising the drugs that get used in these indications in the clinic; and the final part will be to use this platform to see if we can predict differential drug responses or patient outcomes in a small sub-set of patients. These initial studies are aimed at developing the diagnostic product and showing that the technology works.
The next phase will be to run large observational and interventional studies, where we try and predict what drugs the patient will respond to, and compare lab results to clinical outcomes. London IVD are helping us with product placement, adoption and regulatory pathways for product implementation by the NHS.
Q: And Naoko, what is the extent of the project from your side?
Naoko: The plan is to conduct a human factors study for the first three months of the project, and health economics research for the last three months, while running patient and public involvement throughout the entire 18-month duration of the project.
The objectives for the human factors study are to identify key stakeholders among the primary care and clinical network for this new test, and explore how the new test can be used. We also need to identify barriers to adoption, suggest potential mitigation strategies, and describe the potential impact of the new test. We will also consider safety implications and how the test might be best utilised and integrated into the cancer pathway.
Health economics research, which will come at a later stage, will analyse and measure the impact of improvement in outcomes, as well as potential savings from improvement in predictive ability when treatment response is personalised. For the patient and public involvement programme, we will recruit patients and members of the public to establish a board, and hold regular meetings throughout the project to provide feedback to the project team and facilitate dissemination of the results.
Q: How important is this project in regards to the Series A raise that Pear Bio is currently focused on?
Eleonora: I think it’s very important, as this is the first instance where we’ve secured an Innovate UK grant and collaboration with a big institution. UK investors are really appreciative of a company’s ability to show commercial and R&D collaborations, allowing them to become more integrated with the wider diagnostics ecosystem. In terms of regulatory pathways and approvals, we’ve been having regular conversations with the FDA and have prepared submissions to a few of their programs.
Collaboration with London IVD will enable us to further product adoption by the NHS – and within the UK – by identifying key stakeholders, barriers to adoption, mitigation strategies and identifying potential impact on both clinicians and patient care.
Pear Bio is one of nine companies in the Collaborate to Innovate: London Diagnostics programme.
London In Vitro Dignostics Cooperative:
London In Vitro Diagnostics Cooperative is a partnership between Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, funded by the NIHR.
ELEONORA PEERANI, Product Manager, Pear Bio:
Eleonora has a background in Life Sciences from Imperial College London. Following her PhD in Medical Engineering, she began working at Pear Bio as a Tumour Engineer, helping to build and validate the platform alongside Pear Bio’s 3D cultures. She now leads the Biology Team at Pear Bio as Product Manager, helping to translate the technology from bench to bedside, ensuring continuity between Pear Bio’s daily R&D activities, clinical trials and biopharma collaborations.
NAOKO JONES, Programme Manager, NIHR London In Vitro Diagnostics (IVD) Cooperative:
Naoko has been working in universities in the UK for over 5 years (Imperial College London, London School of Economics and King’s College London) and has extensive experience in project and financial management in both large-scale complicated research grants and industry-funded consultancy projects, especially in health-related research.
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