Oxford spin-out to use ultrasound to treat cancer and back pain

A new spin-out, created by engineering academics Professor Constantin Coussios, Dr Robert Carlisle and Dr Christian Coviello, will use ultrasound technology to deliver advanced therapies for difficult-to-treat cancers and chronic low back pain.

Isis Innovation, the University’s technology transfer company, announced that OxSonics has raised £2.7 million to develop the technology, which uses ultrasound devices in combination with ultrasound-sensitive nanoparticles. The technology can provide real-time on-screen feedback to the clinician about where and when drug delivery or surgery has been successful.

Lead researcher Professor Constantin Coussios of the Department’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, said: “What we discovered is that tiny bubbles can be triggered by ultrasound at the nanoscale to cause a wide range of therapeutic effects, ranging from improved drug delivery in tumours to non-invasive removal of the intervertebral disc. These bubbles can be used not only as promoters but also as markers of treatment.

Ultrasound is best known for its diagnostic capabilities. For drug delivery, we will be using similar power settings to those used for conventional imaging applications“.

Ultrasound scans
(a): in the absence of ultrasonic cavitation, the therapeutic agent (in green) only affects those cancer cells (in blue) that are immediately adjacent to blood vessels (in red). (b): in the presence of ultrasound induced cavitation activity, the therapeutic agent (in green) reaches cancer cells (in blue) both proximal and distal to blood vessels (in red), achieving transport over distances in excess of 200 microns. The maximum reported distance between a cancer cell and a blood vessel is on the order of 180 microns.

Study published

In a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Oxsonics cofounders Professor Coussios, Dr Christian Coviello and Dr Robert Carlisle and their team showed that ultrasound can create tiny bubbles which ramp up the attack on tumours.

Professor Coussios said: “A particular type of ultrasound-induced bubble activity, known as inertial cavitation, was found to be key –  as bubbles collapse, they agitate the fluid around them, pumping anti-cancer drugs deeper into the tumours than ever previously reported”.

Compared to drug treatment without ultrasound, the team found that cavitation-enhanced delivery significantly hindered tumour growth and increased the survival rates of the mice being studied.

Ultrasound can dramatically enhance delivery of drugs, particularly for next-generation therapeutics such as immune therapies or virotherapies,” said Professor Coussios. “This focuses drug treatment at the site of the tumour, potentially reducing or avoiding damage to other parts of the body, a hazard associated with the use of chemotherapy drugs”.

Dr Colin Story, CEO of OxSonics said: “Metastatic liver cancer is the first clinical need we will aim to address. Every year there are 2.1 million new cases of this cancer in Europe and the United States combined. Unfortunately, only 5 to 10 per cent of cases can be treated by surgically removing the tumours. In the vast majority of the remainder, the illness is terminal.

OxSonics technology can safely deliver drugs to the whole tumour, rather than a small portion of it. Our mission is to provide curative therapy to those patients who would otherwise be faced with a terminal illness”.

Ultrasound technology also to benefit people with lower back pain

The company will also adapt the very same ultrasound technology, at a higher power setting, to surgically treat chronic lower back pain by repairing intervertebral discs. Lower back pain is one of the most common health problems in the developed world, affecting over 80 per cent of adults at some point in their life. OxSonics’ minimally invasive surgical approach could provide an alternative to highly invasive procedures such as spinal fusion.

Tom Hockaday, Managing Director of Isis Innovation, said: “The interest in OxSonics as an investment speaks to the strong portfolio of intellectual property built up around this technology by the University and Isis over the last six years and to the strength of biomedical engineering technologies here at Oxford. We now look forward to the technology being scaled up to deliver life-saving benefits to patients”.

The syndicated investment, led by Longwall Venture Partners, has been raised in a number of tranches and will be used by OxSonics to fund the clinical trials necessary to gain approval for its ultrasound devices.

About the Founding Team

OxSonics founders
From left to right: Engineering academic founders Dr Bob Carlisle, Dr Christian Coviello, Prof. Constantin Coussios, OxSonics CEO and Founder Dr Colin Story, and investor representatives Dr Matthew Frohn from Longwall Ventures Partners LLP and Mr Adam Parr.

Dr Colin Story (Founder & CEO) brings over 16 years bioscience and medical technology experience, the last 11 of which held in commercial roles. At Isis innovation Ltd., he built and directed a business development team that managed the commercialisation of life sciences IP emanating from the University of Oxford. In his most recent role as Operations Director of OrganOx Ltd he handled all operational and contractual aspects of the business in addition to securing £2.4m of new funding for the company.

Professor Constantin Coussios (Founder & CTO) is the Statutory Chair of Biomedical Engineering (Drug Delivery & Therapeutic Devices) at the University of Oxford. In 2004, he founded the Biomedical Ultrasonics, Biotherapy and Biopharmaceuticals Laboratory (BUBBL) within the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME), today a 40-strong centre of excellence in therapeutic ultrasound is supported by some £15m of external research funding. He served as the Secretary-General of the International Society for Therapeutic Ultrasound (ISTU, 2006-10), and was the recipient of ISTU’s Fred Lizzi award and the Acoustical Society of America Bruce Lindsay award in 2012. He was one of 2 academic founders and Technical Director of OrganOx Ltd., and has worked with Dr. Story for over 8 years.

Two further co-founders from the BUBBL group will consult into OxSonics each with a history of relevant industry experience and academic achievement: Dr. Robert Carlisle (an Associate Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oxford with expertise in viral and non-viral gene delivery systems and toxicology), and Dr. Christian Coviello (an electrical engineer with expertise in ultrasound transducer array development and passive acoustic mapping).

About OxSonics Limited

OxSonics was established in July 2013 to develop a new generation of ultrasound-based medical devices for drug delivery and surgical applications. OxSonics will initially apply its platform technology to address two major unmet clinical needs: metastatic liver cancer and chronic back pain.

OxSonics “SonoTran” platform has the proven capability to overcome the greatest challenge facing solid tumour cancer therapy by safely delivering drugs throughout tumours, including to those areas that lie furthest from blood vessels. SonoTran can be used to enhance delivery of any cancer drug.

OxSonics “UltraSpine” product provides a novel method of intervertebral disc repair, by enabling a minimally-invasive alternative to highly-invasive spinal fusion and disc replacement procedures.

A major benefit of OxSonics’ technology is that it provides on-screen feedback to the clinician as to where drug delivery or surgery is taking place in real time. OxSonics is based in Oxford, UK.