Oxford-based cancer diagnostics company, Oxomics, is developing an innovative blood test technology to detect a range of cancers more quickly. Following a successful NHS pilot, the company has recently spun out of the University of Oxford and is building a commercial strategy to propel its technology across the NHS.
Catching the vague early warning signs of cancer
One in every two people in the UK will be told they have cancer at some point in their lives. For many, getting an early diagnosis could make a crucial difference to their chances of survival.
With fewer people surviving cancer in England than in similar European countries, NHS England has ambitious plans to address this by harnessing innovation to fast-track diagnosis, catching 75% of cancers at Stages 1 and 2 by 2028.
In some cases, early-stage cancer initially presents as a series of vague symptoms, like weight loss, fatigue and pain. People with these symptoms are deemed “low risk, but not no risk” by GPs, but without rapid tests and clear referral pathways available, they often experience long delays and repeated referrals into secondary care before cancer is diagnosed or ruled out.
Getting a clear result from a simple blood test and a complex analysis
Borne out of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) metabolomics research at the University of Oxford, spin-out company Oxomics is developing a highly accurate and rapid blood test technology for tumours. Their goal is to fill the diagnostic void for patients with these vague and non-specific symptoms, as well as fulfilling unmet patient needs across a broad range of other specific cancers.
Oxomics’ cancer diagnostic test uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to profile blood levels of naturally occurring small molecules, called metabolites. Machine learning can then identify distinct patterns of these chemicals, which indicate different forms of cancer. Looking for patterns of change in metabolomic biomarkers in this way sets the technology apart from existing blood tests for cancer.
The diagnostic performed exceptionally well when it was piloted as part of Oxfordshire’s SCAN (Suspected CANcer) Pathway – a new clinical pathway enabling GPs to rapidly refer these “low-risk, but not no-risk” patients for a Computed Tomography (CT) scan and laboratory tests. The pathway is a collaboration between Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Oxford University researchers in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.
When piloted with blood samples from 300 patients, Oxomics’ cancer diagnostic detected solid tumours in 19 out of every 20 patients, with 94% sensitivity, and found early-stage cancer in patients that the SCAN Pathway would have otherwise missed. Importantly, the test was able to determine whether tumours were metastatic or non-metastatic. When it was published in January 2022, the trial captured the world’s media – Oxomics’ technology was the first to successfully determine the metastatic status of cancer from a simple blood test, without any prior knowledge of the type of cancer.
An accelerator award to pave the way to market
For Oxomics co-founder and biochemist, Dr James Larkin, the commercialisation journey kick-started in December 2021 with an Health Innovation Oxford and Thames Valley Accelerator Award. Oxomics progressed through the intensive eight-week development programme with additional mentoring from Roche Diagnostics UK and Ireland and demonstrated the impact of their diagnostic in the NHS. James and his team’s proposal surpassed five other SMEs to take the top prize – £50,000 worth of business support from Pioneer Group. This would help to transform his team’s next-generation cancer diagnostic technology into a viable business venture.
Since winning the award, James has taken on a full-time role as CEO of Oxomics. With his collaborators, he is developing a commercial strategy for the technology and is seeking investor backing.
As a new spinout with a small team, James is taking advantage of the mass of experience and support in Oxford’s innovation ecosystem to help him to bridge the gap between the academic and commercial worlds, along with the programme of mentorship, workshops, and networking from the Pioneer Group. Alongside this, the integrated relationship between the University of Oxford’s Old Road Campus, where research underpinning Oxomics technology was carried out, and the NHS Trust, ensure that technology development takes place within an environment of research and patient care.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into transforming a successful research test into a product that can make a difference to people’s day-to-day lives. The spin-out process is not straightforward but I’m lucky that for every challenge I encounter, there is someone who has trodden the path before me to learn from.”
“Success for a spin-out company is multi-faceted. It relies on the intersection of excellent science, a clear need for the product, and a good fit with the market and potential customers and users. We have great potential and there are really good arguments for adoption in the NHS – we have fantastic technical ability, our technology fits into and improves an existing clinical pathway, it’s inexpensive, there’s a critical patient need, and it’s relatively straightforward from a regulatory point-of-view.”
Dr James Larkin, CEO, Oxomics Ltd
Oxomics have recently secured funding from the Centre for Process Innovation and Innovate UK to navigate the UK, the USA, and the EU’s complex HealthTech regulatory landscape. Following the completion of their seed funding round, the company plans on a recruitment drive to increase its R&D capacity, commence trials of the technology in specific patient populations, and demonstrate regulatory compliance so the diagnostic can be made available to NHS cancer services and their patients.
In October 2023, Oxomics was awarded £1.25m Biomedical Catalyst grant from UKRI to drive the development of its technology, supporting the company to develop a commercially viable product.