Researchers in medical diagnostics have a new organisation to help them exploit their research and bring it to patients.
Diagnox, an Oxford-based project, has received a £400,000 biotechnology exploitation platform challenge award from the Department for Trade and Industry.
Researchers have traditionally been strong at developing techniques for early diagnoses of illnesses but slow to exploit them.
Lisa Mynheer, manager of Diagnox, said: "Researchers often develop diagnostic tools for the purposes of their research but haven't had the resources to exploit them for the benefit of patients. Equally, pharmaceutical companies have neglected exploiting their diagnostic tools simply because they are not as profitable as a new drug."
Diagnostics is also being transformed by the gene revolution, with new techniques bringing their own ethical dilemmas. "For example, is it right to start diagnosing diseases before the patient has them?" Ms Mynheer asked.
Diagnostic tools also have to be used carefully in the case of diseases where there is no cure. "Take motor neurone disease," Ms Mynheer said. "There really is very little that can be done to help sufferers, but at least a diagnosis allows a patient time to come to terms with their disease. But it is equally possible to imagine situations where it is better simply not to know. Ethical committees have to decide on how a product is to be sold and used in the clinical environment."
Diagnostics in the United Kingdom is subject to European Union regulation, with companies having to support their claims for the efficiency of new techniques. This brings Europe more in line with the United States where strict regulation is well established.
Technologies developed through Diagnox should also help the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to appraise new health interventions before they enter the National Health Service.
Nice has, for example, been examining a treatment for the late stages of breast cancer. But the drug, called Herceptin, is expensive and requires a precise diagnostic tool to identify appropriate patients. Nice has recommended the drug's use in the NHS.
Ms Mynheer is working with Diagnostics Systems Lab on the marketing of a test that measures a woman's ovarian reserves. "Some women undergo years of fertility treatment. This test will tell them whether they have sufficient eggs left to make the treatment worth while," she said.
Diagnox is managed by Oxford Innovation Ltd, which runs innovation centres in the Southeast. The project also has the support of Oxford Brookes University, Isis Innovation (the technology transfer arm of Oxford University), the Oxford John Radcliffe NHS Trust and the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association.
In January, the DTI and the Department of Health jointly announced a £15 million investment in Genetics Knowledge Parks in the UK, with the aim of turning innovative work into human genetics into clinical practice. Oxford was selected as a site.
David Mackintosh, research and business development manager at the John Radcliffe Trust, is keen for Diagnox to be involved. "The park will reinforce the major research and clinical work in genetics in Oxford. It aims to determine which areas of genetic tests will be useful for clinical practice and to inform the public and healthcare professionals of the potential benefits of genetics."
Ms Mynheer said: "Diagnox will support all stages of technology transfer from proof of principle at the research stage through to the creation and development of a new company."
Membership to Diagnox is open to everyone with an interest in diagnostics, such as researchers and new companies. Members will have access to specialist advice in intellectual property, finance and marketing.