Take a look at the blog pieces written exclusively for Lab Innovations by experts in the field reflecting on the latest challenges facing the industry today:

GAMBICA exclusive: UK laboratory technology market sees steady growth but will it continue?

For the past decade the UK laboratory technology market has grown by an average of approximately 4.5% per annum*. (*Source – the Gambica annual UK laboratory technology market turnover survey - 2006–2015)

The building and refurbishment of laboratories has also seen strong growth during this time with new facilities on science parks, universities, industry and other private ventures.

Although the UK vote to leave the EU last year made many take a deep breath, business, after a slight pause, seem to be continuing.

The same can also be said for the export of UK laboratory technology products and services, although the growth has been more lumpy, the average over the same ten year period is again around 4.5%*.

Looking forward the UK is going to need to work hard to continue this level of average growth. 

Investors in the UK are drawn here for many reasons but in the science and technology field, it is for areas such as a great facilities, institutions, education, people and innovation. This has been stimulated in part by the draw the UK has for people from overseas and the excellent science opportunities the UK offers them. Whether post exiting the EU these will remain we have yet to see but it is something the government realises.

From an export point of view the UK will again have to up its game, should it need to replace some of it’s EU business, which is by no means certain. However the low value of sterling has seen many exporters become more competitive, price wise, leading to increase margins or market share in their current markets. They cannot though rest on their laurels as history shows currency gains are often short term and will need to continue developing their exports to existing and new markets.

Those companies that don’t already export may also consider it a good time to start because of the value of sterling. There are plenty of services out there to help companies prepare, from the Department of Trade and chambers of commerce to local LEP’s and trade associations. The rewards have been well documented in that exporters are more resilient & innovative but it does require resource and planning.

2017 appears to be on course to see more growth in the industry. Hopefully by the time Lab Innovations comes round in November, we will all have a better feel for if that is true and how the negotiations on existing the EU are going and what effects they may have.

CRISPR: the renaissance enzyme

Unless you have been living in a science-free bubble the past year, you will undoubtedly be aware of the debate surrounding CRISPR’s therapeutic potential, and the challenges of controlling outbreaks of Zika and Ebola. In the past few weeks, Oxford Genetics has signed a licensing agreement with ERS Genomics regarding its foundational IP for CRISPR, to strengthen its cell line development and gene therapy research applications. Meanwhile, there is encouraging news that the threat from Zika may have peaked, for now at least, as high herd immunity has reduced the incidence of infection. There is growing confidence that the Ebola outbreak can be contained in a remote part of DRC, and the country- now well-versed in containment procedures- will be able to avert the catastrophic effects of previous outbreaks, with the option of calling upon the WHO’s stock of 300,000 doses of its experimental vaccine.

But what do these encouraging stories have to do with other? Well, it turns out that gene editing isn’t the only story for CRISPR.

A team at the Broad Institute in Massachusetts has been examining the behaviour of CRISPR enzymes and honed in on a particular RNA-cutting enzyme called Cas13a. They studied the action of the enzyme with regard to lentivirus infection in cells and noted that- in contrast to the DNA-cutting CRISPR enzymes- the RNA CRISPR enzyme embarks on a frenzied cutting campaign, snipping away indiscriminately at RNA in the sample, after binding to and cutting its target RNA sequence. DNA-cutting CRISPR enzymes in contrast are inactivated after completing their initial targeted cut.

But what use are these maniacal tailor’s scissors?

This ‘collateral cleavage’ can be exploited to report on the presence of the target sequence in the sample through fluorescent ‘reporter’ RNA sequences whose signal is activated when the CRISPR enzyme enters its post-target cutting frenzy. By coupling the technique with an amplification step, the Broad Institute team were able to detect very small levels of RNA (or DNA converted to RNA) in blood or saliva. The technique, known as SHERlock (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing) could be used as a highly sensitive method to warn us of early tumour formation, infection with dangerous pathogens, or to help track the spread of antibiotic resistance genes.

The amplification step can occur through isothermal methods at body temperature and the team has succeeded in configuring the assay in a paper-based format.  This clever bit of science might be able to help in the fight against infectious disease where it's needed most- in low-resource settings in the field.

Getting there is not without its challenges; the assay is at an early stage of development, there are technical challenges involved in a multi-step assay, and that's before cost and logistical factors have been brought to bear on the situation. But it's good to know that the technology might support point of care testing in challenging circumstances.

So perhaps we need to look at CRISPR again- not just the Savile Row tailor’s scissors helping us to cut out genetic disease, but also a super-sleuth tracking down cancers and infectious disease. A true renaissance enzyme!

Every great discovery faces technical hurdles along the way- that’s why at Lab Innovations 2017 we have gathered exhibitors across a huge range of scientific and technical fields to help you bring your innovation to life.

Rethinking failure: what to do with negative results

In November 1887, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley published a paper in the American Journal of Science entitled ‘On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Ether’. 1 The article described an experiment they had hoped would provide proof of the existence of the ether, the medium through which light was thought to travel as a wave. If the speed of light was dependent upon its direction, then it provided support for the idea that light travelled with or against the ether ‘current’. Unfortunately, the experiment provided no such proof, and would become one of the most famous ‘failed’ experiments in history. But the story doesn’t end there. Michelson and Morley’s willingness to publish their failed data laid the foundation for Einstein’s later work on special relativity, and this raises important questions about what we mean by failure and success in the scientific community, and what we do with the results of disappointing endeavours.

You may be familiar with the anecdote told about Thomas Edison during his research into a nickel‑iron battery. The exact words are disputed, but here’s the earliest known version as told by his long-time associate, Walter Mallory: “‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.2

Failure, it would seem, is a matter of perspective. A negative result is no less valuable than a positive result, providing that they have been obtained in a reliable manner. It surely makes sense to publish negative results as much as positive results, as the impact of withholding negative results from publication are obvious – duplication of effort, wasted money, more animal testing and ill-informed research decisions. However, we have seen fewer negative results published in journals in recent years3 and the cause has been attributed to a number of factors.

For starters, journals have a preference for cutting-edge and new scientific discoveries, over and above the reporting of non-significant results.4 Accolades, funding and prestige normally go to the scientists who publish positive data, an approach that naturally discourages scientists from continuing with experiments that may not lead to breakthrough results, but may be valuable nevertheless.  As Natalie Matosin et al. put it: “When time is money, and our research output is judged based on impact and citations, why waste the time? In our view, negative results are just as useful as positive findings, but, unfortunately, they do not attract the same citations.”4 While it may be laudable to publish non‑significant results, scientists are people with career aspirations and funding applications to fill out, pressures which are likely to outweigh any prior idealistic principles about the way science should be.

There are no obvious solutions, although initiatives such as New Negatives in Plant Science5 attempted to redress the balance by providing a publishing platform for negative results. Perhaps part of the solution lies in learning to honour the scientists who are willing to offer their failed experiments to the community – it is a comfort to know that Michelson received the Nobel prize in Physics in 1907 ‘for his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid’.6 Perhaps we need to dispense with talking about ‘failed’ experiments entirely.

A recent Radio 4 programme7 mentioned Tata, a global conglomerate based in India, and their internal award Dare to Try, which recognises ‘sincere and audacious attempts to create a major innovation that failed to get the desired results.’8 Asking employees to acknowledge their so-called failures was a bold move. Who wants to own up to spending money and company time on an initiative that never quite made it? However, a culture change has slowly emerged, which recognises that innovation and discovery do not appear out of nowhere, but are a result of trial and error, and the resilience to continue and pursue a different path.

As you wander around Lab Innovations in November and enjoy the array of new products on offer, consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of prototypes that you will never see. And consider too the product designs that were attempted, but abandoned. Is a disastrous prototype a failure, or is it simply one of many steps towards success? If history teaches us anything, it is that failure might need a little rethinking.

Scientific fairs - political rallies in disguise?

Science, at its heart, is a collaborative endeavour, with scientists sharing and building upon one another’s knowledge, and recognising that research can bring people together across political and geographical borders. Many of us will not have the chance to work on international projects, such as the International Space Station or the Human Genome Project, but we can all benefit from learning from the scientists around us.

Lab Innovations exists to bring together over 150 UK manufacturers and suppliers of laboratory technology and analytical equipment with thousands of potential customers, all under one roof at the NEC, Birmingham. You may not think of a showcase as collaborative, but demonstrations and exhibitions are just that, offering the opportunity to discover a new instrument to solve a complex task you are facing, or listen to someone else’s advice.

It is difficult to celebrate scientific collaboration, without acknowledging some of the uncertainty that has arisen recently. The scientific community has become unsettled by Donald Trump’s stance on scientific evidence in policy making, and there is much uncertainty about the impact of Brexit on research funding, movement of people, regulatory issues and trade. Questions abound and answers seem vague, and scientists in the UK are watching closely to see if David Davis and his team can broker a deal which remains true to the vision set out in the Government’s Green Paper on Industrial Strategy Link.

On the 22nd of April – Earth Day – the March for Science saw thousands of scientists across the world temporarily hang up their white coats to champion science-based policy and the importance of embracing scientific consensus on key areas such as climate change and evolution. Although much of the coverage surrounding the march focused on President Trump’s stance on science, the movement has broader objectives, seeking to highlight to the whole of society the value of science in forming policy, and the perils of ignoring or restricting access to the empirical approach.

Today’s scientists are right to defend against any threat to empiricism in decision-making, but perhaps we should sound an optimistic note that the standing of science in society is too great to be quashed so easily. Things may not be the same, and we face a period of change, but small steps go a long way. A showcase or exhibition may not be as tweetable as March for Science or a political rally, but perhaps it has a greater impact than we think – it represents solidarity, shared learning and a commitment to the scientific method and the incredible advances it brings. So, let’s come together in November at the NEC to savour the new products and technologies, and renew our commitment to collaboration. See you at Lab Innovations!


Gene-altering immunotherapy treatment gets FDA approval

No doubt many of you will have seen the headlines on Thursday the 30th of August regarding the FDA approval of a novel immunotherapy targeting B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) in children and young adults under the age of 25. ALL is a form of cancer that targets the lymphocyte-producing cells in the bone marrow, leading to cancerous white blood cells. The approval was passed on the basis of a trial involving 63 cases of ALL, with a remission rate of 83 per cent within three months.
We thought we would take the opportunity to provide an overview of this exciting development.

What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a catch-all term that describes fighting disease by inducing, boosting or suppressing a patient’s immune response, and is of particular interest for treating cancer. Cancer cells evade detection by the immune system, producing checkpoint molecules on their surface that bind to receptors on the T-cells, effectively inhibiting the antitumour immune response and masquerading as healthy cells. To date, most immunotherapy treatments have relied upon checkpoint inhibitor molecules that disrupt the ‘invisibility cloak’ mechanism to increase the immune response, rather than genetically altering white blood cells as the new treatment does.

How does the new treatment work?
T-cells from a patient are removed and infected with a modified virus in order to more effectively target cancerous cells. The virus, which doesn’t cause disease, contains genetic material that prompts the T-cell to create a specific protein (a chimeric antigen receptor or CAR) on its surface. Once reintroduced into the body, the CAR T-cells target and destroy B-cells, thanks to the receptors binding to the antigen CD19 that covers the B-cell surface. Unlike taking a pill or another drug, the CAR T cells remain in the body long after initial treatment, up to years in some patients.

Are there any side effects?
The treatment may induce cytokine release syndrome (CRS), involving life-threatening flu-like symptoms, which is often an indication that the treatment is working. Appropriately, Genetech’s Actemra (tocilizumab) – a drug that treats life-threatening CRS – has also received FDA approval for use on patients over 2 years of age. In addition, since the CAR-T cells indiscriminately destroy both cancerous and healthy B-cells, a patient’s immune response is severely impaired, requiring immunoglobulin therapy to help fight infections.

Who developed the treatment?
The treatment was developed by the University of Pennsylvania. In 2012 at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, six year old Emily Whitehead was the first patient to receive the experimental treatment, and the cancer went into complete remission. The drug, tisagenlecleucel, has since been licensed to Novartis, and is being marketed as Kymriah. 
How much does the treatment cost?

The personalised treatment costs $475,000, excluding additional hospital and drug expenses, as well as travel costs to the certified medical sites for T-cell extraction. Novartis is offering financial support to uninsured and underinsured patients, and is working with Medicare to develop a programme in which there is no charge if a patient does not respond to the treatment within the first month. 

What’s next?
There is a huge amount of excitement in light of the FDA approval, with many people hailing a new era of cancer treatment. A quick internet search reveals a host of articles, commentaries and opinion pieces, more than we can condense into this short post. While the general vibe is extremely positive, there have been a number of contrasting reactions to the cost of the treatment, and we will have to wait and see how this newsworthy story unfolds.