Twelve years ago Paris-domiciled British artist Richard Kirk had a chance meeting over a pint in Soho and discovered a new world. He became fascinated by a small piece of electroluminescent material powered by a simple battery at his table.
Despite having no scientific background, he embarked on a journey that’s led to the development of medical devices that can be used to treat some of the most common causes of blindness.
Richard founded PolyPhotonix in partnership with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), a High Value Manufacturing Catapult based in Durham, to develop technology based on organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) that exploit the ability of certain organic molecules and polymers to emit light when an electric current is passed through them.
OLED devices are flat, the emissive layer being as thin as 1/200th of the thickness of a human hair meaning they have many potential uses for lighting applications, one example being flexible and conformable panels that could radically influence the way car lighting is designed.
However, with the support of Innovate UK, which has funded the company and its university research partners with about £12m since 2008, PolyPhotonix is on the verge of revolutionising treatment for degenerative sight-threatening conditions caused by age and diabetes with Noctura, a non-invasive device that looks like a sleep mask.
Diabetic retinopathy happens when blood vessels in the retina change. Sometimes they swell, leak fluid or close off completely. In other cases, abnormal new vessels grow on the surface of the retina. In both cases the damage to the macula (the central part of the lens) can be severe and leads to eventual blindness.
90% of people with type 1 diabetes develop diabetic retinopathy, 67% of those with type 2 diabetes will also develop it within 10 years of diagnosis. The current UK diabetic population of 3.5m is growing rapidly and the incidence of diabetes is forecast to grow by 50% between 2010 and 2030.
There are currently two treatments. One involves an intraocular injection into the eye, which is both unpleasant and costly (in excess of £12,000 per eye per year). The other is a laser treatment that effectively cauterises broken blood vessels, however, it only delays the progress of the disease and it is normally only performed twice on a patient.
“The potential costs, both human and financial, facing health services around the world are deeply sobering. There’s an urgent need for an effective, repeatable, value for money treatment,” Richard commented.
The Noctura 400 and 500 devices developed by Polyphotonix, prevent damage caused during sleep by hypoxia (lack of oxygen) when the eye adapts to darkness. This in turn prevents the growth of abnormal blood vessels which are a symptom of the disease and contribute to loss of vision.
Similar in appearance to sleep masks used on aircraft, the devices use light as part of the treatment process and contain sophisticated electronics to control the energy levels of light emitted to a patient, manage the dosage, and monitor the patient’s use of the treatment.
“The Noctura 400 treatment has the potential to save more than £1bn per year from NHS budgets on full adoption. We’re working closely with UK universities and have five trials running concurrently, looking at various aspects of the treatment,” he commented.
Much of the early, fundamental research was undertaken at the University of Liverpool.
“We were very careful to keep research activity confidential in the early stages since it would be immoral to raise the hopes of sufferers of these devastating diseases without robust evidence to support our claims,” he added.
PolyPhotonix is now supplying Noctura 400 for a Phase III trial led by Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. More recently, with the help of SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) Healthcare funding, the company has won a contract with the NHS to develop a Patient Care Pathway model to guide the eventual approval and adoption of the treatment by NICE and the NHS. It is hoped that the treatment could be in general use by the end of 2015.
There’s a global market and big export potential for the Noctura devices which are predominantly manufactured and assembled in the UK, since diabetes is a growing global epidemic with no country untouched.
Catapult centre helps the funding decision
Richard believes that access to finance is the single biggest issue for start-ups in the UK. Bank lending usually works on a three to five year cycle; much shorter than the typical research and development cycle required to take a technology from laboratory to market – usually seven to ten years.
As a result a high percentage of innovative start-up companies spun out of universities, close down due to lack of money and valuable intellectual property is lost, often outside the UK.
“In recent years there’s been no appetite to fund programmes with a significant manufacturing element, and bank support has never been an option for us,” Richard commented.
His experience of working with the Centre for Process Innovation couldn’t have been more different.
“Their deep knowledge of the R&D process means they understand how long it can take to get an innovative product to market and this forms their attitude to investment. Their management and scientific expertise has also helped us to fund much of our research through grants and competitions,” he explained.
“Innovate UK in particular has been fantastic. We couldn’t have done any of this without them. We’ve received grants for feasibility studies to fund our University partners, benefitted from the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme, and SBRI Healthcare is supporting our clinical trials and NHS programmes,” he concluded.
Founded in 2008, PolyPhotonix is a biophotonic research company developing light therapy treatments for macular eye disease. In just six years it has grown from one employee with an idea, to manufacturing a phototherapy eye mask that could save the NHS up to £1bn a year. The company is based at the Centre for Process Innovation’s National Printable Electronics Centre near Durham.