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Major leap forward for tissue testing

A new microbioreactor technology has been produced that provides a more realistic tissue environment for drug testing

A new microbioreactor technology, developed by the University of Oxford spin-out company, Zyogel, provides a more realistic tissue environment for drug testing. Estimates suggest it could save the pharmaceutical industry billions of pounds.

Dr Tim Hart, CEO of Zyoxel said: "Pharmaceutical, chemical and cosmetic companies need better and more reliable information when testing drugs and compounds. Using microbioreactors for 3D tissue culture to test chemicals on a range of lab-cultured human tissues will enable researchers to assess new drug candidates more intelligently. The inability to detect toxicity at an early stage of drug development is estimated to cost the pharmaceutical industry around $8bn per year."

Zyoxel is developing partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies and anticipates that the first product sales will take place within a year. Recently, Zyoxel secured £1m from Hong Kong-based CN Innovations Holdings to commercialise the technology, which offers a way to increase being able to identify and reject toxic compounds early in drug development programmes.

Mr Winston Chan, chief technical officer of CN innovations Holdings Ltd said: "We are delighted to be working with Oxford, and with Isis Innovation. This is a great example of bringing world-class research to rapidly expanding markets in Asia. China is stepping up as a leading innovator in the pharmaceutical and stem cell field, including therapeutic stem cells.

"CN Innovations is a science-based technology and precision engineering company, and Zyoxel will be the basis of our bio-medical business, which will be a key growth area within our group in the future.”"The microbioreactor technology was invented by Professor Cui, Dr Jill Urban from the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics and their colleagues. It enables cells to grow as three-dimensional tissues instead of conventional single layers.

Professor Cui said: "Cells function very differently when grown as tissues, in conditions closer to those of cells in the body. The microbioreactors are also individually perfused to mimic how cells in the body are constantly supplied with fresh nutrients and waste products removed via the blood.

"Recent research has shown our technology can be used to culture more realistic cancer tissue for testing, offering a powerful new tool for cancer drug discovery programmes.

"Our microbioreactor has an elegant multiwell design, using a gas-permeable polymer to produce an easy to use consumable for higher throughput routine testing. The microbioreactor is transparent, to facilitate imaging and microscopy of complex cells and tissues during testing. This is particularly useful for studying cancer and neurological diseases. The Zyoxel technology also has the potential to reduce the amount of animal testing worldwide by around 10 per cent per year.

"Stem cells have enormous potential, but there is a big gap in our understanding of how to reliably culture and grow them. Our bioreactors provide a simple format in which to culture and test stem cells, increasing the pace of screening and our understanding of these potentially very powerful therapeutic cells."

The CN Innovations Holdings investment marked the first time a Chinese investor has provided funding for a new Oxford spin-out. Zhanfeng Cui from Oxford's Institute of Biomedical Engineering, one of the founding inventors, was educated in China and is the first Chinese person to be appointed to a Chair by Oxford.

5th October 2009

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