Breath tests to be operated by Owlstone Medical with € 50million fundraiser
After years of broken promises, breath tests for cancer, liver disease and respiratory ailments appear to be taking off with UK biotech Owlstone Medical raking in nearly € 50million (£ 42million) in a series D oversubscribed round of funding.
The round, which initially had a target of around 43 million euros, was led by Hong Kong-based Horizons Ventures and was joined by a number of new anonymous investors from the United States, Asia and from the Middle-East. He increased the total capital raised to date by the company to € 128m (£ 109m) and earned Horizons a seat on the company’s board of directors.
The idea that breath tests can be used for diagnosis dates back over a decade – a historical focus has been the use of dogs for sniff out cancer. Since, scientists are fighting to build devices capable of reliably doing the same. Each breath sample is unique and contains information about biochemical processes, including pathological processes, throughout the body. Yet collecting samples correctly and analyzing them accurately has proven elusive time and time again.
“Respiration-based diagnostics are extremely promising, the surface of which has barely been scratched,“Owlstone CEO Billy Boyle told me.”What has held back the space – with the exception of a few eNose approaches that deploy one or a small number of sensors for specific chemicals in a limited range of clinical applications – is that the entire workflow, from collecting samples for analysis is difficult.“
Owlstone uses breath sampling cartridges and sophisticated analysis to address this challenge, and currently provides research services to pharmaceutical and academic partners. The company plans to use the funding to help it further develop its technology and commercialize a pipeline of breath tests that can diagnose lung cancer, liver disease, and respiratory and gastrointestinal conditions in the clinic.
Owlstone is one of many companies exploring and expanding the field of respiratory diagnostics. The Dutch company Breathomix has been working on devices capable of detecting lung cancer for years. The American company Cairn Diagnostics already produces consumer devices that test for gastroparesis, a digestive disorder characterized by delayed gastric emptying.
A common theme with breath testing is that developers seek to capture and measure volatile organic compounds, or the more volatile chemicals produced during metabolism, that are exhaled with the breath. Most often, they use mass spectrometry to analyze the results, charging the captured molecules and forcing them through magnetic fields, with each compound drawing a unique path or signature.
The Covid-19 pandemic posed a big challenge for respiratory test developers as many clinical trials came to a halt in the early waves and concerns about the spread of the respiratory virus spiral. However, a number of breath test developers have mobilized their equipment to detect Covid-19, including Owlstone, Breathomix and the Israeli firm NanoScent.
The pandemic has also resulted in increased investment in biotech stocks and increased revenues for many diagnostic companies. The benefits of a non-invasive, rapid and inexpensive breath test for the early diagnosis of countless conditions, including Covid-19, cancer and heart disease, are hard to miss for doctors, scientists and investors.
“This is the start of a trend,Said Guillermo Vidal-de-Miguel, founder and CEO of Spanish biotech Fossil Ion Tech, which also produces respiratory diagnostic devices. “As instrument developers lead the way in producing reliable data, it is only natural that breath analysis becomes more common. Many research groups and startups are making great strides in the field. Investors will eventually take notice.“
Cover image via Elena Resko