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Biosphere businesses receive funding boost to support the global fight against COVID-1

June 2, 2020

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TWO businesses based in The Biosphere on Newcastle Helix have been awarded funding to accelerate their innovations to support the global fight against the COVID-19.

Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency has awarded ExplantLab and Atelerix almost £50,000 each to fast track their ideas and research. Both are based in The Biosphere and were among only 800 applicants chosen to receive a share of £40million government investment out of a record 8,600 applications from across the UK.

Managed by Innovate UK, the Fast Start competition was launched in April to fast-track the development of innovations and ideas bourne out of the pandemic. Last week (May 20) Business Secretary Alok Sharma announced government were doubling this investment, with an additional £20 million, part of a wider £211m investment package to encourage business-led innovation.

For Atelerix, the UK government recognised the potential of their existing technology to extend the shelf life of COVID-19 test kits. Their unique and innovative hydrogel technology can be included within current swab kits to encapsulate the cellular material, protecting it from mechanical stress and stabilising it at room temperature. Extending the shelf life of viral swab samples contributes to the government’s goal of increasing daily testing for COVID-19 by allowing more patient samples to be collected so they can be safely stored for longer, or transported further afield to centralised testing facilities.

Mick McLean, CEO of Atelerix said: “By developing our existing technology, we can not only support with the immediate implications in the current global efforts in diagnosing coronavirus, but this could be a monumental step to stabilising swab samples used to detect a plethora of diseases and conditions. This funding will play a key part in our future growth plans and we are privileged to play our part in the fight against this pandemic.”

ExplantLab will use this funding to investigate whether certain genes may protect individuals from developing serious complications following infection from COVID-19. For example, geographical areas affected more or less and within different ethnic populations. Genes play a critical role in the overall immune response and this work is one part of a larger study, building on ExplantLab’s existing capabilities and research. The project outputs meet the emerging need for helping to develop accurate diagnostics and treatments for COVID-19. The aim is to create a prototype algorithm for predicting the response to infection and reliability of antibody tests.

Dr David Langton, Director of ExplantLab said: “We were prompted to do this work by the apparent difference in the impact of COVID-19 in East Asia compared to Western Europe. There seems much more to this than simply differences in social/governmental policies. We know from our work on host responses to medical implants that can people react entirely differently even when they are exposed to the same materials. With metal implants and viruses, the T cell response appears to be critical – and it is the genes concerned with T cell recruitment that we will be studying. If genes associated with increased or reduced susceptibility to other viruses could be identified, it could be important in helping improve health and reduce impact on our economy. This funding will help us to accelerate this development and bring together different specialties to shield more vulnerable members of society.”

Councillor Ged Bell, Cabinet Member for Employment and Culture at Newcastle City Council said: “The life sciences sector is in the limelight like never before, with some of our region’s best talent and minds coming together to help with the UK and global effort against COVID-19. The Biosphere was part of the city’s commitment to growing the sector and as we look towards the recovery of our economy our region’s strengths in life sciences will play a critical role. Not only are these businesses helping to improve lives, this funding will support them to boost their ambitions and provide pathways to jobs and new opportunities.”

Luke Dunnett, Property Business Manager at The Biosphere added: “For two ideas from tenants in our building to be chosen within 800 successful applications out of 8,600 overall submissions from across the UK is really impressive. This is testament to the quality of the innovation and ideas that are happening right here in The Biosphere.”

Innovate UK drives productivity and economic growth by supporting businesses to develop and realise the potential of new ideas. They fund business and research collaborations to accelerate innovation and drive business investment into R&D.

Executive Chair, Innovate UK, Dr Ian Campbell, said: “Businesses from all over the UK have answered our call rapidly to meet the challenges we face today and in the future through the power of innovation. The ideas we have seen can truly make a significant impact on society, improve the lives of individuals, especially those in vulnerable groups and enable businesses to prosper in challenging circumstances.”

The Biosphere is a purpose-built laboratory facility on Newcastle Helix dedicated to the commercialisation of life sciences. It has secured significant funding through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020 and the Government’s Local Growth Deal through the North East LEP. Both funds help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations.

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