A new measure of heart disease
Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in the UK. Accurate diagnoses are essential for patients to optimise their treatment. However, many people with heart pain can be poorly served by existing diagnostic technology. Echopoint Medical, a spinout company from UCL, are bringing a new cardiovascular medical device into clinical practice, enabling patients to receive faster, more accurate diagnoses and better treatment.
Echopoint developed from close collaborations between UCL’s leading engineers and clinicians. Research by Prof Adrien Desjardins and Dr Richard Colchester of the Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, Prof Ioannis Papakonstantinou from the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering and Dr Malcolm Finlay, a Consultant Cardiologist at Barts Heart Centre, harnessed the university’s multidisciplinary strengths. Spurred by the challenge to extend the sense of touch and vision inside the human body, the team explored the integration of fibre optic sensors into existing minimally invasive devices to provide new sensing and imaging capabilities.
Bringing fibre optic sensors into the clinic
Optical fibres are routinely used and manufactured at scale for telecommunications, but they are also ideally suited for minimally invasive devices. Optical fibres can be thin, flexible, biocompatible and are immune to electromagnetic interference. Adrien Desjardins, Echopoint’s Chief Technology Officer, explains: “A key technical challenge has been the microfabrication of advanced sensor head elements that are positioned at the distal ends of optical fibres.”
Echopoint have developed a proprietary microcatheter to deliver their sensors, algorithms to interpret the sensor data, and a console with a real-time display. These components have been designed to be fully compatible with existing clinical practice.
A new frontier for cardiology
The team homed in on a diagnostic challenge that disproportionately affects women and diabetic patients with heart pain. Around two-thirds of patients, often in these groups, don’t fit the ‘classic’ presentation of a blocked or narrowed artery which can be successfully treated with stenting alone. Instead, the problem may be more complex and diffuse, affecting the network of smaller blood vessels branching off from the coronary arteries. Specific measurements which show how blood flow is restricted in different parts of the heart are essential to get the right diagnosis – and effective treatments.
For Malcolm Finlay, Echopoint’s Chief Medical Officer, this is the next frontier for cardiology. “These patients have been underserved for many years. There’s a pressing need to provide precise, robust measurements that can support better diagnosis and treatment.”
By bridging this gap, Echopoint can help to reduce the cost, risk and harm to patients resulting from unnecessary treatments, and to deliver better outcomes as more patients are able to access new therapies.
A first-in-human trial is planned for the end of this year at Barts Heart Centre in London. It will be a major milestone for the company and set them on course to apply for regulatory approval. The team have their sights set on the global market, estimated to be in excess of $1 billion USD.
From concept to patient impact
It’s challenges like these which have made the support of UCLB and the UCL Technology Fund (UCLTF) so valuable.
Antony Odell, Echopoint’s Executive Chairman, explains: “We’ve realised how much of the journey lay ahead beyond the initial proof-of-concept stage. UCLB helped to bring in the external expertise we needed and acted as a bridge to venture capital funding, which has been instrumental in making the next step.”
In September 2019, Echopoint successfully raised £2.8 million funding from UCLTF, Parkwalk Advisors and Innovate UK.
Weng Sie Wong is a senior business manager at UCLB, supporting UCL researchers to commercialise their technologies. “MedTech can be a challenging sector, so it’s important to have the right expertise to navigate the hurdles and make projects attractive for investors. When you get it right, the rewards and impact are enormous, and for a company like Echopoint the benefits could be felt by huge numbers of patients globally.”
Echopoint will announce a further funding round later this year, which will allow them to grow the core team and to further develop relationships with suppliers and international partners.
David Grimm, Investment Director at UCLTF says: “This is a great combination of fantastic UCL engineering talent, expert clinician input and experienced management taking some super impressive tech and applying it to solve a pressing need. We’re really excited to be preparing to see the tech used in real patients this year. This is the sort of innovation the UCL Tech Fund loves to support and we’re proud to be working with Echopoint.”
UK expertise in cardiovascular physiology and fibre-optic sensing and a strong entrepreneurial university culture have come together to powerful effect in this exciting start-up. Their determination to translate innovation into patient benefit could see Echopoint make its impact felt across the world.