Vision Scotland: Healthy options in a new age of enlightenment

From pioneering the use of anaesthesia with chloroform during surgery to ground-breaking work in genetics; the invention of the saline drip and hypodermic syringe to the UK's first kidney transplant, Scottish innovation in health has touched all of our lives.

The Enlightenment placed the nation at the heart of medical advances and laid the foundations for what would go on to become the thriving life-saving and life changing sector of today.

Scotland is now home to more than 700 life sciences companies employing 37,000 people. The sector’s reach stretches from the Outer Hebrides to multi-million pound biocluster sites in Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh including innovation centres focused on stratified medicine, sensors, digital health, industrial biotechnology and aquaculture.

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The scale of the work and its potential to bring to heel conditions and diseases which have perplexed science for centuries, is breathtaking; from world-leading prosthetics created by Össur at its Livingston-based Touch Bionics operation - which has just confirmed £5.6m funding over three years - to Canon Medical’s European Research and Development Centre, which is developing £6.6m life sciences software designed to improve diagnoses and treatment for cardiovascular, stroke and oncology patients. Among the first to benefit will be children with congenital heart defects.

The Scottish Government has plans to make life sciences an £8bn industry by 2025, and ground-breaking work is already progressing across the country. In Inverness, CorporateHealth International, which has developed a video camera capsule to replace invasive endoscopies and colonoscopies, is involved in a £5.7m project to establish a new diagnostics centre, while LifeScan Scotland, a global leader in the design and manufacture of glucose test strips and meters for monitoring diabetes, is the largest life sciences employer in Scotland, with 950 employees.

In the west, Glasgow University is working with specialists from a range of disciplines to research, develop and drive innovation in human imaging thanks to the £32m Imaging Centre of Excellence (ICE) at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. At its heart is a £10m Seimen’s Tesla MRI scanner, which places Scotland at the forefront of medical imaging capabilities.

Meanwhile, a new £56m Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre has been confirmed for Renfrewshire, giving Scotland the chance to capture a larger slice of the global £98bn small molecule pharma market. It will be located next to the £65m National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland (NMIS) and at the heart of an Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District.

The range of advances covers medical breakthroughs to incredibly clever devices and digital equipment to make treatment and care more effective and efficient – such as the wafer-thin light capable of being inserted into surgical equipment which is being developed by Clear Surgical in Larbert, and colposcopic medical equipment created by DYSIS Medical Ltd in Edinburgh for the in vivo detection of cervical cancer.

In October , the NHS Research Scotland Conference in Perth will celebrate 70 years of medical advances, which have helped to transform health and patient care. 

Here we look at three cutting edge health innovators whose work is set to change lives.

Gene control tackling deadly conditions

Advances in cell and gene medicine are chipping away at conditions which have previously baffled science and claimed countless lives.

New therapies for leukaemia and certain types of blindness have already emerged and work is underway to search out solutions to many life-shortening conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.

Leading the way in the vital area of gene control is Edinburgh-based Synpromics, based at the £30m Roslin Innovation Centre, which opened in August last year.

Its highly disruptive technology gives scientists the power to control gene expression in almost any condition. These synthetic promoters are designed to better regulate gene activity and precisely control protein production. They can be tailored to drive gene expression at the level and specificity required for industrial or therapeutic applications.

Synpromics has also developed PromPT®, a multi-dimensional bioinformatics database that enables product-specific promoter design and selection.

In December, Synpromics confirmed it is working with University College London (UCL) to generate a range of synthetic gene promoters for the central nervous system to develop a gene therapy for Parkinson’s.

The technology is also currently being evaluated in more than 25 product development pipelines in pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical and biotechnology companies worldwide, targeting diseases such as haemophilia, muscular dystrophies and liver disorders.

In May this year, Synpromics confirmed it had been awarded a £1.9m grant from Scottish Enterprise, part of a £5.4m research and development project to further develop PromPT technology and novel promoter work within the biotechnology sector.

It has also received a £235,000 grant from Innovate UK in collaboration with Lonza.

In the past three years it has grown from seven to 40 staff and signed collaboration agreements with six of the top 10 cell and gene therapy companies. It revenue has grown from £50,000 to £1.29m, and it has signed total accumulated deals valued at over £300m.

Shark blood key to eye conditions

Our sight is precious, without it lives are dramatically curbed and our independence is snatched away.

At Elasmogen Ltd, researchers are working on revolutionary solutions to eye conditions which affect millions of people across the world.

Their work is focused on replicating the benefits of the body’s own antibodies, which naturally seek and destroy harmful pathogens that invade our bodies.

Over recent decades scientists have been able to harness the power of antibodies in the laboratory, to target disease molecules such as tumour cells. There have been effective results in treating inflammatory conditions, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

Led by Chief Executive Caroline Barelle, Aberdeen University spin out and global biotech Elasmogen is working on antibody-like molecules which originate in sharks’ blood.

Called soloMERS, they are incredibly tiny but very strong - perfect for being put into individual cells.

Around one tenth of the size of typical antibodies, SoloMERs can go further into tissues in the body to reach their targets, while their simple structure means they can “click” together – almost like Lego – to not only bind one but two or more disease targets, increasing their specificity and potency.

Because they are incredibly tough, the antibodies can be delivered locally into the eye – avoiding the need for harrowing injections.

While the business’s main research is focused on developing drugs to treat eye diseases such as uveitis, a debilitating and sight-threatening inflammatory disease, and also age-related and diabetic based macular degeneration, it is also collaborating with other companies to develop new oncology drugs.

Its work with Almac Discovery seeks to create soloMER-drug-conjugates, which can target cancer cells to deliver their toxic load, while a project with Queen’s University Belfast, aims to couple tumour targeting soloMERs to chemo-toxin filled nanoparticles, directing them to and killing cancer cells.

A recent £2m funding package from Innovate UK is promising more disruptive areas of drug development. In this case, the inside of a cell is targeted – normally too tiny for classic antibodies to access.

It is expected to lead to a new class of new oncology medicines.  

In recognition of Elasmogen’s ground breaking work, Dr Barelle was recent named “Rising Stars: Extraordinary Talent” at last year’s Scotland’s Life Sciences Annual Awards.

Digital ledger tracks a child’s health from day one

Every new parent has one, and there’s a chance there are thousands lying in kitchen drawers across the land.

The little red book handed to parents soon after their child’s birth, is intended to help keep track of vital stages of development, vaccinations, screening tests and general health and progress. 
In the early years, it’s often kept close at hand. But as children get older, the red book can often fall out of use – particularly in these digital days when jotting down details seems to be a thing of the past.

From a base in Skye and at other UK locations, however, Sitekit has been working on a secure digital solution that will allow both clinicians and parents to effectively monitor a child’s health and development from day one.

Now being rolled out in London, with other regions becoming increasingly involved as the technology is proven.

The project is just one thread of Sitekit’s work in the healthcare sector aimed at creating secure digital solutions to improve service delivery and enable people to live healthier lives through the use of familiar digital consumer technology.

Its Identity and Access Management (IAM) technology has helped deliver emotional and clinical support to teenage and young adults with cancer, through a secure app which enables them to communicate with their care team, view data about their treatment, access support and share their thoughts and needs.

It means that patient’s input can be used by their care team to provide a holistic treatment package.

Sitekit employs over 70 people across offices in Portree, Edinburgh, Oxfordshire and London.

This article appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. A digital version can be found here.