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1 August, 2013 - 10:24 By Tony Quested

Ethical stem cell startup launches in Cambridge

Dr Yichen Shi with Dr Jonathan Milner

Cambridge entrepreneur Jonathan Milner has launched a new, ethical stem cell business in the UK’s technology capital – and Axol Bioscience has shipped its maiden product just four months after startup.

The Abcam CEO and Cambridge angel has co-founded Axol with internationally acclaimed Dr Yichen Shi. They have just made the first shipment of the company’s proprietary brain stem cells – produced from reprogrammed human blood cells, known as iPS cells.

The company, which is tilting at a multibillion dollar global market, has a real ace to play as its product requires no testing on animals. Its first customer is the University of Cambridge.

Neurobiology is one of the major sectors of biomedical research with an annual total public and private funding over $15 billion worldwide.

Dr Shi said the current method of studying diseases of the nervous system involved the generation of animal models. However, genetically modifying animals to mimic human disease was extremely time consuming, expensive and ethically unsound, he said.

Additionally, the models often failed to recapitulate the relevant human neuropathologies. A burning desire of many researchers is to study genuine human tissue samples – however there are only very limited amounts of frozen postmortem brain tissue samples available for research, and using aborted foetal tissues for research is also ethically controversial.

The Nobel Prize-winning cell reprogramming technology and proprietary neural tissue generation technology together provide an opportunity to derive an unlimited amount of patient-specific brain stem cells, which can then generate functional brain tissue for neurological research.

Dr Shi said: “The demand for high quality iPS cell-derived neural cells for research is increasing daily. Only four months after Jonathan and I founded the company we already have our first customers and are shipping product. It is really exciting – we are working all hours just to keep up with the demand.”

Co-founder Dr Jonathan Milner, who is Axol’s chairman, added: “We live in a golden age of biology, central to which is the amazing recent discoveries of how to make stem cells from easily accessible somatic cell types which were previously believed to be irreversibly differentiated.

“Axol Bioscience will be at the forefront of fulfilling demand for high quality iPS cell-derived neural cells for use in research into diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, autism and epilepsy.”

There is significant market potential for clinical and academic research of neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke. iPS cells derived from patients can be differentiated into various cell types which will exhibit the functional properties of the disease in vitro.

Axol’s current products are for research use only, not for diagnostic procedures.

The founders met at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge – which promotes research in the areas of developmental biology and cancer biology – when Dr Milner was speaking there as a guest alumnus. They have privately funded the new business but plan to seek further investment moving forward.

Headquartered at Babraham Research Campus, the stem cell startup currently has four full time employees but intends to scale up in the coming months.

Dr Shi said: “Our aim is to secure a global foothold within both the academic and corporate research markets through strategic partnerships with highly experienced, qualified and well established distribution partners and an integrated and robust e-commerce system.

“We expect to see significant growth through milestone-driven strategy and global diversification. As we expand, we will bring on a plethora of exceptional talent to help us further extend our manufacturing and marketing capabilities – including a diverse evolution of the product lines to ensure we become the leading global market authority for iPS Cell derived research components.”

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Yichen Shi with Jonathan Milner

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