New technology from Swansea University spin-out PulmonIR detects degenerative lung condition that affects millions worldwide

Pioneering research by Professor Paul Lewis of Swansea University’s Medical School into one of the most common lung diseases in the UK, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), has led to the development of a new technology that can quickly and easily diagnose and monitor the condition.

This technology is now being taken forward commercially through the recently formed spin-out company PulmonIR Ltd.

Clinical trials in collaboration with Cwm Taf University Health Board to validate the technology are now underway following a capital grant from Welsh Government health technology funding and a substantial investment into the new business from a syndicate including IP Group, Finance Wales and the Swansea University Innovation Fund.

COPD affects over 330 million people worldwide at an estimated cost to healthcare providers of over $2 trillion a year. The primary cause, cigarette smoking and/or exposure to tobacco smoke, leads to irritated and inflamed lungs, causing permanent scarring; a breakdown of lung tissue and a narrowing of the airways and air sacs.

Whilst irreversible, symptoms including breathlessness, a persistent cough, and regular chest infections can be treated. Where the causes can be eliminated, the disease can be slowed, giving a huge boost to the quality of life a sufferer can expect. Left untreated however, the condition becomes exacerbated, leading to frequent hospitalisation, at a current annual cost of £4 billion to the NHS.

Number of deaths in Wales 2015 figures*:

  • COPD - 1920     
  • Breast cancer - 612
  • Prostate cancer - 559

COPD deaths also rose in 2015 - previous figures* were:

  • 2014 1614
  • 2013 - 1764

Professor Lewis (pictured below) explains: "Where COPD is present, the surface of molecules within a sample of sputum (coughed up mucus) contains a specific configuration of sugars.  We discovered that by shining beams of infra-red light onto a sample, you could detect COPD from the unique frequency of infrared light bouncing off the sample. This technology could allow health professionals to test and diagnose COPD patients in as little as ten minutes." 

Professor Paul Lewis

Professor Lewis previously received support for commercialising his idea from InvestorG8, Swansea University’s highly successful investment readiness programme funded by the Welsh Government A4B program.  This funding was used to develop a disposable sample strip that can be used in conjunction with a handheld  infrared device, to make it easier for clinicians and patients to diagnose and monitor COPD.

Vaughan Gething AM, Cabinet Secretary for Health, Well-being and Sport, said: “This technology could speed up diagnosis and improve monitoring of COPD, which could bring real benefits to patients.  Not only could this help the NHS work more efficiently, but the spin-out company has the potential to bring economic benefits and high-value jobs to Wales.  I’m delighted to support this development and I’m pleased that respiratory specialists at Cwm Taf Health Board are participating in the clinical trials.”

Following completion of this research, PulmonIR Ltd was formed in order to secure the venture capital required for clinical trials.  These trials are being used to validate high-throughput testing of patient samples in the laboratory, to field test portable infrared spectrometers, and to compare the clinical results obtained against spirometry, the currently accepted clinical ‘gold standard’.

The trials began in August 2016 in collaboration with respiratory consultant Dr Sadiyah Hand of Cwm Taf University Health Board.

Once the preliminary clinical trials have been completed, further investment will be required to complete the development of a clinically-validated system that can be put on sale in the UK and overseas.

COPD Technology

Dr Stuart Plant, Director, New Business and Partnerships, IP Group commented: “IP Group is pleased to support its first Swansea University spin-out company.  We believe that Paul’s approach to the detection and monitoring of COPD has substantial potential and look forward to working with him and the team to help commercialise it.”

Dr Richard Thompson, the Finance Wales Board Observer said: “Finance Wales is delighted to back this home-grown medical device business, following on from our long term collaborations with Swansea University and the IP Group.  We are delighted to have led the co-investment into this exciting spin-out company. They’ve now begun an exciting clinical trial in south Wales and we’re happy to be able to support them through it.”

Dr Gerry Ronan, representing the Swansea University Innovation Fund commented: “I am absolutely thrilled to see this business secure investment.  I have been working with Paul for a number of years on this technology and was very impressed with its potential when it was funded under the InvestorG8 Investment Readiness initiative in 2014.  This substantial co-investment shows the potential that our Innovation Fund has to attract commercial investors to the table and we hope to replicate this success with other spin-outs in due course.”

Dr Mark Bowman, Chief Executive Officer of PulmonIR Ltd said: “I have been involved with Professor Lewis for some time, having previously managed the InvestorG8 investment readiness initiative on behalf of Swansea University.  I was very happy to be asked by the investor group to join the new company and to lead the initial phases of its commercial development.   Professor Lewis and I will be working closely with Dr Sadiyah Hand to deliver the preliminary clinical trial results.  At this point, PulmonIR should be well-placed to secure the necessary regulatory approvals that are essential for launching a commercial product into the international healthcare markets.”

Ms Laura Herdman, Corporate Solicitor at Capital Law LLP in Cardiff, who acted for PulmonIR Ltd in respect of completing its recent investment said: “I very much enjoyed working with Paul and Mark in completing the investment in PulmonIR.  Capital Law places a strong emphasis on advising early-stage companies with their investment transactions.  It is particularly pleasing to be working with a Welsh medical device company.”

*All statistics are from NHS Wales, Health Maps Wales.