industry news

7 JANUARY 2019

Alphabet’s health tech division Verily raises $1bn

Verily, the life sciences unit of Alphabet, has raised $1bn in an investment round led by private equity firm Silver Lake to further its strategies that are in sync with its current portfolio.

The health tech company intends to use the funding for investments in strategic alliances, global business development opportunities and potential acquisitions.

Verily, which was previously called Google Life Sciences, received $800m in financing in 2017 from Singaporean investor Temasek.

Verily CEO Andrew Conrad said: “We are taking external funding to increase flexibility and optionality as we expand on our core strategic focus areas.

“Adding a well-rounded group of seasoned investors, led by Silver Lake, will further prepare us to execute as healthcare continues the shift towards evidence generation and value-based reimbursement models.”

The company is focussed on the development of tools and platforms for continuous collection of health data and to aid effective interventions. It is also working on better prediction and prevention of diseases.

Verily has partnered with multiple pharmaceutical companies on a variety of life science projects ranging from diabetes management to surgical robotics.

One of the alliances is with Dexcom, which aims to optimise the use of continuous glucose monitors. Another diabetes-related project between Verily and the Novartis unit Alcon to develop glucose-sensing lens is currently on hold.

Furthermore, Verily is working with GlaxoSmithKline to devise bioelectronic medicines for a variety of chronic disease.

Meanwhile, the company’s work in partnership with Google Research and Nikon is focussed on machine learning-based solutions for eye conditions associated with diabetes.

In December 2015, Verily established an independent surgical solutions company Verb Surgical with Johnson & Johnson. This was followed by a joint venture with ResMed in July last year to help sleep apnoea patients.

Recently, the company partnered with Walgreens Boots Alliance on multiple projects in a bid to enhance health outcomes and decrease the cost of care for patients with chronic conditions.

7 JANUARY 2019

Two new biomarkers could help diagnose atrial fibrillation

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK have identified two biomarkers that could potentially aid in the detection of atrial fibrillation in people with three specific ‘clinical risks’.

The research was conducted by scientists from the Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences and the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences.

The team found that older male patients with a high body mass index are at a higher risk of atrial fibrillation.

They further observed that the heart condition in these patients can be identified by screening for increased levels of the brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) hormone and fibroblast growth factor-23 protein.

An ECG test is commonly used to screen patients for atrial fibrillation but is considered resource-intensive and burdensome.

The researchers believe that the newly discovered biomarkers can be potentially used in a blood test in community settings for selecting patients who require electrocardiogram (ECG) screening.

Research senior author Larissa Fabritz said: “The research outcomes were surprising. While BNP is already a known and widely used in clinical practice biomarker, the results around the effectiveness of the FGF-23 biomarker was an unexpected and new finding.

“FGF-23 is only currently used in a research-based environment, but we have shown how its use could be invaluable in a clinical setting.”

During the study, the researchers evaluated 40 common cardiovascular biomarkers in 638 hospital patients recruited between September 2014 and August 2016.

Conventional statistical analysis was then combined with new machine learning techniques to obtain the results.

British Heart Foundation associate medical director professor Metin Avkiran said: “This research has used sophisticated statistical and machine learning methods to analyse patient data and provides encouraging evidence that a combination of easy-to-measure indices may be used to predict atrial fibrillation.

“The study may pave the way towards better detection of people with AF and their targeted treatment with blood-thinning medicines for the prevention of stroke and its devastating consequences.”

The research team is currently working on follow-up assessments of the patients in the study to improve the prevention and treatment of atrial fibrillation.

3 JANUARY 2019

UK launches Owlstone Medical’s breathalyser trial for cancer diagnosis

Researchers at The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre have launched a clinical trial to evaluate diagnostics company Owlstone Medical’s breath test for the detection of various cancer types.

The PAN Cancer trial for Early Detection of Cancer in Breath will recruit a total of 1,500 healthy volunteers and people suspected to have cancer at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, UK.

Based on Owlstone’s Breath Biopsy technology, the test is designed to analyse odorous molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to identify the presence of cancer in breath samples.

The breathalyser is expected to enable non-invasive diagnosis of the disease at an early stage.

Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre lead trial investigator Rebecca Fitzgerald said: “We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients the best chance of surviving their disease.

“Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier – it’s the crucial next step in developing this technology. Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy technology is the first to test across multiple cancer types, potentially paving the way for a universal breath test.”

Initially, the trial will enrol patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers. It will be expanded to include those with prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers.

Participants will be required to breathe into the test for ten minutes to collect a sample. Owlstone will process the obtained samples at its Breath Biopsy laboratory in Cambridge.

The breath samples will be examined for VOCs in order to detect signals of different cancer types. The researchers intend to study the similarity of cancer signals along with their scope for early detection.

Furthermore, the trial will compare samples from participants who go on to develop cancer in the future with those who do not.

Owlstone Medical co-founder and CEO Billy Boyle said: “There is increasing potential for breath-based tests to aid diagnosis, sitting alongside blood and urine tests in an effort to help doctors detect and treat disease.

“Our technology has proven to be extremely effective at detecting VOCs in the breath, and we are proud to be working with Cancer Research UK as we look to apply it towards the incredibly important area of detecting early-stage disease in a range of cancers in patients.”

The researchers hope that validation of the technology will enable the use of breath biopsies in GP practices to determine if patients can be referred for further diagnostic tests.

3 JANUARY 2019

Saliva diagnostic test for malaria could replace skin pricks

A research team at the University of Florida in the US has created a new non-invasive screening test to detect malaria by using saliva samples.

The new diagnostic method is expected to replace commonly used blood tests that require skin pricks and are considered less effective and reliable. Blood tests also require infrastructure and trained staff.

According to the researchers, the new test requires spitting into a tube and can be performed outside clinical settings.

The saliva test is designed to identify an essential protein required by Plasmodium falciparum parasites for survival. This is intended to address the issue of acquired mutation of the malaria parasite.

It detects female parasites circulating in an infected person who does not display any symptoms but has the parasite and could potentially develop the disease within a week.

Early detection of malaria is expected to enable early treatment as well as prevention and further transmission of the disease.

University of Florida infectious diseases researcher Rhoel Dinglasan said: “Malaria is like a big iceberg that we’ve always chipped away at on top, above the water line.

“But it’s the bottom of the iceberg, this reservoir for transmission, that we don’t understand because it’s a population that, until now, we could not see. This test takes us below that water line, so we can see how big the reservoir is.”

The test was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and licensed by Johns Hopkins University. It has been assessed in a study involving more than 300 children in Cameroon, Zambia and Sierra Leone.

Findings from the study were published in the Science Translational Medicine journal.

Diagnostic solutions company ERADA Technology Alliance will market the test as a Saliva-based Malaria Asymptomatic and Asexual Rapid Test for subclinical infection.

2 JANUARY 2019

CII launches council to support Indian medical device industry growth

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has announced the National Medical Devices Promotion Council in a move to strengthen the sector, as well as make better quality medical devices accessible to everyone.

According to the CII, the council was established to meet the country’s medical device industry needs.

The council will be operated under the Department of Industrial Promotion and Policy of India. It will focus on strengthening manufacturing operations and attracting investments, as well as promote exports.

Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion Secretary will lead the council.

CII Medical Technology Division chairman Himanshu Baid was quoted by ET Healthworld as saying: “Time has come for the medical technology sector to have an exclusive promotion council that will safeguard the interests of the patients, industry and all stakeholders.

“We are looking forward to seeing strong Indian presence in the global medtech map in the next few years.”

Baid added that the council will offer an environment for the growth of the medical device industry in the country.

In addition, the council will start various initiatives such as holding seminars and workshops to receive industry opinions, as well as understand the best global practices.

It will also focus on exploring redundant processes and render technical assistance to the agencies and departments that deal with simplifying the approval processes involved in the sector.

CII Medical Technology Division currently has a network of domestic and global medical device companies.

2 JANUARY 2019

University of Tokyo team creates nanosensor to monitor cardiac cells

A University of Tokyo research team has partnered with Tokyo Women’s Medical University and RIKEN in Japan to develop a soft nanomesh sensor that could monitor beating cardiac cells.

Sensor probes are commonly used to study cardiomyocytes in action. However, these devices are said to hinder the cells’ natural movement and in turn impact the accuracy of observations.

Researchers noted that the new nanosensor is used along with a flexible substrate or base in order to mitigate its affect on the behaviour of the heart cells.

University of Tokyo researcher Sunghoon Lee said: “Our nanomesh sensor frees researchers to study cardiomyocytes and other cell cultures in a way more faithful to how they are in nature. The key is to use the sensor in conjunction with a flexible substrate, or base, for the cells to grow on.”

The team used fibrin gel as a base to culture healthy cardiomyocytes extracted from human stem cells at Tokyo Women’s Medical University.

Meanwhile, the sensor's probes and communication wires were made using ultrafine polyurethane strands coated in parylene and gold.

Multiple probes can be used to visualise propagation of signals that result from and stimulate the heart cells to beat. These signals are considered critical for evaluating the effect of drugs on the heart.

Lee added: “Drug samples need to get to the cell sample and a solid sensor would either poorly distribute the drug or prevent it reaching the sample altogether. So the porous nature of the nanomesh sensor was intentional and a driving force behind the whole idea.

“Whether it’s for drug research, heart monitors or to reduce animal testing, I can’t wait to see this device produced and used in the field.”

Researchers expect the nanosensor to enable the study of other cells, organs and medicines, as well as future embedded medical devices.

21 DECEMBER 2018

Walgreens and Verily to collaborate on new chronic disease solutions

Walgreens Boots Alliance and Verily have announced collaboration on several projects with the goal of boosting health outcomes and reducing the cost of care for patients suffering with chronic conditions.

The two firms will work on and explore ways to boost access to advanced healthcare technologies and solutions, which may include sensors and software in the prevention, management, screening and diagnosing of disease.

These solutions will be deployed at Walgreens retail locations.

The companies will initially focus on developing a medication adherence pilot project to deploy devices and other approaches aimed at improving adherence.

Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Stefano Pessina said: “We’re focused on finding innovative ways to deliver better patient care at lower costs, and working with the right healthcare partners to help bring new services and solutions to our patients and customers.

“The continued rise in chronic diseases today can be costly to patients as well as to our healthcare system. Working with Verily, we’ll look at how we can best support integrated and value-based care to meet our patients’ needs, as well as opportunities to address other chronic conditions over time.”

Verily CEO Andrew Conrad said: “We are well aligned with Walgreens on the need to develop and bring to market solutions that help people better engage with their health and manage their chronic conditions. This relationship affords us the opportunity to jointly tackle real-world issues that significantly impact the health of individuals and communities.

“Medication adherence, which represents one of the most significant and costly barriers to improving patient outcomes, is an area that I am most excited to work on with a partner like Walgreens.”

Walgreens will also introduce a virtual diabetes solution to its employees and family members suffering from Type 2 diabetes along with Onduo, the joint venture company between Verily and Sanofi.

Onduo offers tools, coaching and remote access to physicians so that they can help people suffering with diabetes to manage their condition.

These initiatives are part of a broader strategic alliance intended to bring Verily’s healthcare technology innovation with Walgreens store presence.

Walgreens Boots Alliance is a retail pharmacy chain with more than 18,500 stores in 11 countries. It also has pharmaceutical wholesale and distribution networks, with over 390 distribution centres delivering to over 230,000 pharmacies, doctors, health centres and hospitals annually in over 20 countries.

20 December 2018

Australian researchers test new needle to reduce brain bleed risk

A research team in Australia has integrated a tiny fibre-optic camera within a biopsy needle in order to avoid the risk of bleeding during a brain biopsy procedure.

The team was led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics and the University of Adelaide’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing.

The ‘imaging needle’ is capable of optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging and allows visualisation of blood vessels in real-time. The needle is said to allow differentiation between blood flow and tissue.

A test performed on 11 patients at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Western Australia demonstrated that the needle was able to intraoperatively identify blood vessels with 91.2% sensitivity and 97.7% specificity.

Researchers concluded that the imaging needle has the potential to be used in various neurosurgical needle interventions.

“The imaging needle lets surgeons see at-risk blood vessels as they insert the needle, allowing them to avoid causing bleeds.”

University of Adelaide Medical School Biophotonics chair professor Robert McLaughlin said: “Brain biopsies are a common procedure carried out to diagnose brain tumour and other diseases. It is a minimally invasive operation, but still carries the risk of damage to blood vessels that is potentially fatal.

“The imaging needle lets surgeons see at-risk blood vessels as they insert the needle, allowing them to avoid causing bleeds.”

Contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or x-ray computed tomography is commonly used to identify blood vessels at risk of injury on preoperative imaging.

These procedures are followed by use of preoperative imaging to guide frameless stereotactic navigation techniques for directing the biopsy needle trajectory.

However, researchers said in a paper published in the Science Advances journal that these standard techniques do not eliminate the haemorrhage risk.

The fibre-optic camera integrated into the new imaging needle shines infrared light onto the brain tissue and a computer system linked to the needle uses this to detect at-risk blood vessels and alerts the surgeon.

McLaughlin added: “This is the first reported use of such a probe in the human brain during live surgery, and is the first step in the long process required to bring new tools like this into clinical practice.”