By Ben Butkus
Cambridgeshire, UK-based molecular testing firm Lumora said this week that it has raised £1.5 million (about $2.4 million) in a Series B financing to help support the company as it shifts its focus from the food safety testing market to clinical diagnostics.
To that end, Lumora is seeking partners in the clinical molecular diagnostics space to develop assays using its isothermal amplification and firefly luciferase reporter technology, which require inexpensive instrumentation and are thus suitable for point-of-care applications, Chief Marketing Officer Paul Weinberger said this week.
In the meantime, Lumora has begun work on its own molecular tests for HIV viral load monitoring and gastrointestinal infections, primarily for use in the developing world, Weinberger said.
"Our business is not to build major in vitro diagnostic sales and marketing capabilities," Weinberger said. "It's to work with people who already have those resources available, and help them with product development through collaborative R&D; and then obviously license our core technology."
Lumora's Series B round was led by Catapult Venture Managers, which contributed just over £1 million to the round. Existing investor and major shareholder Tate & Lyle Ventures contributed the remaining £500,000.
Lumora's core technology, called bioluminescent assay in real time, or BART, is a reporter system designed to be used with isothermal nucleic acid amplification technologies.
Because BART uses firefly luciferase to generate an optical readout, when used with isothermal amplification the technique doesn't require complicated and expensive optical or thermal cycling instrumentation, making it suitable for use in an inexpensive and portable instrument platform.
"We partner [BART] with a number of different isothermal amplification technologies — basically anything producing pyrophosphate as a byproduct of the amplification," Weinberger said.
"Essentially that's the big differentiator in that we don't need to excite the sample, because it's generating its own light source," he added. "That means the instrumentation is incredibly simple and robust. You could be running one of our reactions with … isothermal amplification chemistries, and you could move the instrument, physically, while it's going, and you'll still get a result. So it's sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum of real-time PCR, which is a very sensitive, rather complex piece of equipment."
Despite the technology's simplicity, Lumora has also developed a quantitative readout method akin to real-time PCR. "We have a peak of light that then falls away again, and essentially we're looking at the time to peak," Weinberger said. "It's essentially doing what real-time PCR would do in terms of quantitative analysis."
Lumora has also developed technology "related to isothermal amplification" that Weinberger said can "improve upon some existing approaches," although he declined to share more details on it, citing the early stage of development.
And Lumora has also started proof-of-concept work on a "digital" version of BART that uses high-density arrays to isolate microliter-scale reaction volumes, much like the individual reaction volumes used in digital PCR.
"Because each reaction is generating its own light signal, you don't have to excite every single reaction," Weinberger said. "So if you've got a very dense array … and each one is generating some light signal, then your optics and instrumentation again become very simple. And of course we're doing it isothermally, as well, so you don't have to cycle these hundreds of thousands of reactions."
Lumora was founded in 2002 as a spinout from the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge. According to Weinberger, the company had always intended to use the BART technology for molecular diagnostics.
However, breaking into that sector proved to be difficult at first, so Lumora began eyeing other markets for its technology, finally settling on food testing applications such as the detection of pathogens and genetically modified ingredients.
In 2006, Lumora licensed isothermal amplification technology from BioMérieux to combine with the BART technology for food testing applications; and, in that same year, the company raised its first funds in a Series A worth approximately £2 million led by Tate & Lyle, an investment firm focused on food technology and industrial biotechnology.
Now, with the latest cash infusion, Lumora hopes to move its technology back to the molecular diagnostics space while putting the food testing business on the backburner for the time being.
"The focus on clinical has always been there, but with small companies it's difficult to do everything at once," Weinberger said. "So it's once again become the main priority, because that's the largest opportunity for us."
In the area of HIV viral load testing, Lumora CEO Laurence Tisi said in a statement that the company has partnered with "an internationally renowned not-for-profit organization." Weinberger declined to identify this partner, citing a confidentiality agreement and the early nature of the collaboration.
Now, the company will turn its attention toward identifying corporate partners interested in using BART in various clinical diagnostic applications.
"As we stand today, our model is based on outlicensing our technology, and we do assay co-development," he said. "We can work with partners to develop [assays] using the chemistry of their choice … We've got good bioinformatics and assay design, optimization, and stabilization capabilities."
At the same time, Lumora will continue with its own internal assay development, which it can only take so far due to its limited resources. "We are doing our own development for a number of reasons: First, so we'll have the products closer to market when we have the appropriate partners," Weinberger said. "Also, it allows us to generate more IP to protect what we have."
As part of the Series B financing, Catapult has named Jim Reid as a non-executive director on Lumora's board. Reid has previously worked for several major companies in the molecular diagnostics space, including Roche and Chiron.
Have topics you'd like to see covered in PCR Insider? Contact the editor at bbutkus [at] genomeweb [.] com.