People with cancer could benefit from new immunotherapies being introduced to the market more quickly and at a lower cost. It would also be valuable to be able to predict which patients benefit from treatments. Heidi Haikala and her research group at the University of Helsinki aim to solve these problems.
The innovation developed by SOLID-IO team is a drug testing platform based on tumor-on-a-chip technology, a technology that is used more and more in preclinical research around the world. In Solid-IO, the patient's own cancer cells and immune system are built inside a small platform resembling a computer microchip, which allows the efficacy of various drugs to be tested. The technology can help pharmaceutical companies to determine the best target groups for new immunotherapies being developed.
“We would be able to report to them that a drug works, for example, in some subtypes of lung cancer,” says Haikala.
The team's commercialisation expert Lassi Viitala points out that there are thousands of immuno-oncological drugs under development and it can cost billions to put even one to the market. Initial results suggest that SOLID-IO could accelerate this process. The patent application filed in the summer of 2023 is specifically based on the team being able to test and grow cells faster and more accurately than has been done traditionally.
“It should substantially cut costs for pharmaceutical companies and potentially end up reducing the immuno-oncology drug prices,” says Viitala.
Speed also opens the door for the technology to be introduced into hospitals later as a tool for treatment planning. This would enable the testing of patient samples and the prediction of the effectiveness of specific cancer treatments.
“If a pharmaceutical agent has strong adverse effects and is ineffective for this particular patient based on our test, we could immediately say that it is maybe not worth administering,” Haikala clarifies.
SOLID-IO has been created by an interdisciplinary team including specialists in translational medicine, molecular biology, and bioinformatics as well as medical doctors. One of the developers of the innovation is Ilkka Ilonen, Chief Physician at Helsinki University Hospital (HUS), and cooperation with HUS is crucial in general. The hospital provides the team with tissue and blood samples from cancer patients who have agreed to participate in scientific research.
SOLID-IO received Research to Business funding in preparation for commercialisation at the beginning of 2023. The team will first target the market for preclinical drug testing, where, according to Viitala, it could replace other, weaker oncological models. There is great commercial potential already in this.
“An InsightAce Analytic report estimates that the market for models of preclinical oncology was $1.2 billion in 2022,” says Viitala.
SOLID-IO will initially test its technology for lung cancer, which causes the most cancer deaths. Haikala estimates that the technology could be applied also to other solid tumours and even more extensively.
“We have opportunities to start modelling other diseases of the immune system as well.”
During the two-year commercialisation funding period, the team will validate its technology and crystallise its business model. The most likely option is to establish a contract research company that will provide testing services to pharmaceutical companies. Later, when entering the diagnostic world, a test for hospitals and clinics could be launched.
“It would facilitate sample logistics and enable faster scaling of product-oriented business,” Viitala describes.
In addition to the European market, SOLID-IO is aiming at the US market, where the customers would be pharmaceutical companies, private clinics, and hospitals. The team is looking for investors who are familiar with the market and who understand health and deep tech. According to Viitala, commercialisation is off to such a good start that a spinout company may be launched already before the end of the R2B project.
“We already have potential, interested customers.”
Immunotherapies can be revolutionary treatments for some cancer patients. However, immune system is unique to each person, which makes it difficult to predict the effectiveness of treatments. Immunotherapies are also very expensive and slow to make available to patients.
SOLID-IO is developing an individual drug testing platform that can be used to build the patient's own mini-tumor and immune defence inside a chip. This could accelerate the development of immunotherapies and make immuno-oncological (IO) drugs more affordable. The technology could also be used to personalise treatments for cancer patients.
The initial goal is to establish a contract research company that sells services to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The next step could be to collaborate with a larger contract research organisation and eventually, for example, perform diagnostics for hospitals and clinics.
SOLID-IO is looking for investors with good networks in the United States who know both pharmaceutical companies and the clinical environment. The team is also happy to discuss with any company developing immuno-oncological drugs. Cooperation with university hospitals and clinics will also be important in the future.