Cambridge start-up wins funding to develop new diagnostics

Pipetting sample into a tray
Pipetting sample into a tray
Credit: Andrew Brookes, Getty Images:

Cambridge start-up SMi and its research partners have received two Innovate UK awards to progress their work on testing for infectious diseases and detecting biomarkers for cancer.

The first Innovate UK award, received in 2021, allowed SMi to partner with the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease, the Medicines Discovery Catapult and the National Physical Laboratory to develop its technology for testing for respiratory diseases. The second award, made in early 2023, is helping SMi and its partners apply the same technology to detecting cancer.

Co-founded in 2018 by former University of Cambridge researcher Dr Andrew Thompson, SMi is developing a new technology that analyses samples using super-resolution imaging. The technology can detect, quantify and characterise single molecules that are of interest, including DNA, RNA and protein molecules associated with specific diseases. It can visualise what other technologies cannot see and very rapidly batch analyse hundreds of samples with extremely high accuracy.

The first round of £1.9m funding enabled SMi to develop its platform, used for the simultaneous screening of common respiratory diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the need for rapid and cost-effective diagnostic testing on a massive scale. Test accuracy and the ability to identify new variants were critical.

The second Innovate UK award has funded the application of SMi’s platform to cancer diagnosis by enabling work with another team of specialists at the Medicines Discovery Catapult. Here the same single molecule visualisation approach is being used to detect and quantify cancer biomarkers in patient blood samples. This will help clinicians to make more accurate assessments, and combined with the flexibility, accuracy, speed and high throughput of SMi’s technology, could reduce diagnostic backlogs and provide patients with their results much sooner.

SMi’s aim has always been to create a user-friendly, automated benchtop instrument that can be used in both research and healthcare settings. Initial instrument designs were guided by consultation with NHS trusts and the NIHR Medical Devices Testing and Evaluation Centre (MD-TEC), while prototypes have been tested in labs at the University of Cambridge, the Medicines Discovery Catapult and the National Physical Laboratory. Commercial production will be outsourced to a medical device manufacturer in the East of England.

SMi’s CEO Dr Andrew Thompson said: “SMi is creating a highly accurate and user-friendly platform that is based upon single molecule imaging, meaning that we can detect individual molecules that are invisible to other technologies. With an approach that allows them to reliably monitor single molecules, SMi provides scientists and clinicians with a quality of data that is unprecedented. Such capabilities are likely to have far-reaching benefits for diagnosis and the discovery of new medicines. Our Innovate UK funding is allowing us to work with very highly qualified research and clinical partners, providing a means to accelerate our product development and realise these opportunities sooner.”

The Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases has been leading the University of Cambridge’s collaboration with SMi. Ravindra Gupta, Professor of Clinical Microbiology, and named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year in 2020 for his work on HIV, said: “SMi’s platform is incredibly exciting and could revolutionise testing for a range of diseases. We have been fortunate to partner with SMi on SARS-CoV-2 detection, and application could extend to identification of specific genetic variants of pathogens as well as cancers.”

Dr Tammy Dougan, Life Science and Healthcare Partnership Lead in the University’s Strategic Partnerships Office, said: “This is a great example of a Cambridge start-up winning Innovate UK funding and using it to build effective collaborations between research partners to take a new technology out of the lab and into clinical practice.”

Since 2018, SMi has grown into a team of sixteen, including scientists, mechanical engineers, software engineers and medical device specialists based in two locations: the outskirts of Cambridge and the West Coast of the USA.


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