Pioneering research by a biotech spin-off company could speed up the discovery of new drugs and cut the number of animal experiments.
The first commercial contracts for the research, which provides convincing human-cell models for drug testing, have been signed by Xcellsyz. The company was born out of a three-way partnership between scientists at University College London and Newcastle and Barcelona universities.
Pharmaceuticals giants GlaxoSmithKline and Novo Nordisk will be the first to use the human-cell technology, but the research has so many applications that UCL's Peter Shepherd, founder of Xcellsyz, said there was huge scope for further partnering.
"Large pharmaceuticals companies are increasingly farming out basic research efforts to biotechs as it gives them more flexibility. What we have done is a classic case of a university nurturing a spin-off until it is ready to go out there on its own," he said.
Dr Shepherd said that commercial partnerships boosted staff morale and helped to keep talented scientists in the university sector: "There is huge interest in what we are doing and it helps recruitment into the lab. There are another half-dozen biotech spin-offs already forming at UCL."
A shortage of human volunteers willing to donate tissue samples prompted the research. So far it has been used in the study of metabolic diseases such as type-two diabetes, but the team is looking at other cell types.
Dimitri Dimitriou, a former director of GlaxoSmithKline, has been appointed chief executive of Xcellsyz.
"Xcellsyz's capabilities have the potential to revolutionise the scientific advances of the post-genomic era. Discovering drugs by using human cells has the potential to save years from the drug-development process and could also reduce the need for animal experiments," he said.
"The approach has the potential to discover drugs not only faster, but also ones that have increased safety profiles. I think the whole industry should be using our approach."
Xcellsyz was formed in June last year and is based in the university laboratories of Dr Shepherd at UCL, Steve Yeaman at Newcastle and Antonio Zorzano at Barcelona. Initial seed funding came from UCL's Bloomsbury Bioseed Fund, set up under the government's University Challenge Initiative, and from Barcelona Empren in Catalonia.