How this Medtech Startup Found a Niche Bioprinting Tumor Models


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In the battle against a disease that kills roughly 26,000 people each day, the importance of greater speed in drug development is critical. In 2018, an estimated 9.5 million people died of cancer worldwide, making it a major concern globally and driving the need for more drug development efforts. As a result, various Medtech companies are identifying opportunities to speed up drug development. One startup, in particular, found a niche within the 3D bioprinting sector to develop advanced tumor models that can aid pharma companies, surgeons, pathologists, and clinicians to accelerate drug discovery and bring more effective cancer treatments to market.

Working specifically to manufacture bioprinted tumor models that use patient-specific cancer stem cells, UK-based newcomer Carcinotech is making a name for itself. Founded in 2018 by 28-year old multi-award-winning stem cell research specialist Ishani Malhotra, the company capitalizes on her technology. In a nutshell, it manufactures micro-size cancer models using stem cells that mimic the cancer environment and can be used for drug testing drug discovery, as a pre-clinical trial tool, and as a personalized medicine testing tool. To learn more about this initiative, reached out to Malhotra, who explained how tumor models could help advance drug development.

“Tumour models, specifically humanized models such as what Carcinotech is developing are a key to solving major challenges in the cancer industry today. Carcinotech’s models can provide rapid, ethical, accurate, and sustainable drug testing platforms for multiple drugs to be tested alongside combination therapies,” explained Malhotra. “Carcinotech’s models are also a great platform for pre-clinical testing, which will eventually lead to a reduction in animal testing and the long-term goal of eradicating animal testing as a whole. As Carcinotech is also developing models from patient biopsies, this offers a platform for personalized medicine testing including treatment decisions for patients directly. This is where biotech is heading towards, precision medicine testing in the oncology space.”

Carcinotech founder, Ishani Malhotra.

Carcinotech founder, Ishani Malhotra. Image courtesy of Carcinotech.

With a target market that ranges from pharmaceutical firms to cancer institutes and academia, Carcinotech aims to disrupt traditional anticancer drug discovery platforms. Currently, roughly one in 50 promising cancer drug candidates makes it to market, and FDA approval has a staggering 97% failure rate at clinical trials for oncology, typically due to issues with drug efficacy or toxicity. Even though a record number of cancer drugs have been approved in recent years, oncology remains challenging. The average time from drug discovery to marketing approval is between 9 to 12 years.

These numbers are even more burdensome when we think about how much time many cancer patients have to live. Even though not all cancers lead to death, Cancer Research UK, for example, estimates that “overall, half of the people diagnosed with cancer in England and Wales live for 10 years or more.” Although the institute also highlights that cancer survival is improving and has doubled in the last 40 years in the country, the time it takes for these drugs to reach a patient is devastating.

Instead, Carcinotech is hoping to revolutionize conventional drug testing. By relying on Cellink’s award-winning bioprinting technologies, the Bio X and Bio X6 printers, the startup offers a cancer model that can test more than 96 drugs at one time and can be made for any cancer type from human and animal cell lines.

Cellink's BIO X bioprinter.

Cellink’s BIO X bioprinter. Image courtesy of Cellink.

Malhotra walked us through the process of creating these tumor models. First, the company obtains biopsy samples from patients alongside matched whole blood. Then, it isolates the heterogeneous cells, including different cell types and immune cells, from these samples and uses them to bioprint tumors, which she describes as “replicas” of the original tumor sample.

“We use the original tumor as a blueprint which allows us to develop accurate models for drug testing in a multiple drug testing format. We get access to samples from different patient populations, allowing us to obtain diverse patient data set for accurate treatment decisions.”

Carcinotech's development process.

Carcinotech’s development process. Image courtesy of Carcinotech.

So far, the startup has developed models for brain and lung tumors and breast cancers but has received requests for various cancer models, and its robust standard operating procedures (SOPs) and tissue engineering techniques allow them to develop models for any cancer type. Future plans include expanding to leukemia, lung, ovarian, colorectal, bladder, and prostate cancers.

Currently working with commercial clients in the UK, Europe, and the US, Carcinotech got its start during Malhotra’s time as a graduate student learning about regenerative medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The project is a result of her unique skillset in cancer diagnostics, therapy, and stem cell engineering. Supported by the tech transfer department, known as Edinburgh Innovations and Scottish Enterprise (Scotland’s national economic development agency and a non-departmental public body of the local government), she began her journey with Carcinotech.

Although it is not considered a spin-off company, it got tremendous support from Edinburgh Innovations, allowing her to secure a lab and office space in one of the prestigious local campuses. Since then, Carcinotech has raised £350,000 (roughly $469,000) in funding from various R&D grants and investments. Additionally, the support received by board members and investors has helped the company generate early revenue and grow from a solo founder to a six-person team.

Cell photo of a breast cancer construct.

Cell photo of a breast cancer construct. Image courtesy of Carcinotech.

According to Malhotra, today, “oncology 3D models is a niche but fast-growing space,” with plenty of funding in drug development, design, and treatments but more and more private investors, venture capital, and corporates that are looking to invest in innovative startups that combine different fields, like Carcinotech, which harnesses the power of 3D bioprinting but uses core oncology research to tackle bigger problems in drug testing and pre-clinical trials.

Driven by a powerful need to accelerate drug development and approval, Carcinotech’s technology can help get more cancer drugs to market while providing great insight into cancer relapses and mechanisms and reducing animal testing. Malhotra already has one patent in her name and is applying for another. Like many driven startups in this field, Malhotra’s keenness to release even more cancer tumor models and innovate is expected to become a moving force for rapid cancer drug testing and future patients worldwide.

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