Live: Q&A with Dr Mike Nicholds, CEO of Newcells Biotech

Newcastle-based Newcells Biotech was created over five years ago as a spin-out from Newcastle University. The team moved in to facilities at The Biosphere Newcastle last year, a specialist facility tailored to the commercialisation of life sciences and innovation, research and development. Dr Mike Nicholds, CEO, discusses the work of Newcells Biotech, short and long-term plans, and how COVID-19 has impacted the business

Tell us about Newcells Biotech and the services you offer? 

Newcells Biotech was formed with a vision to be recognised for creating and commercialising assays that significantly improved the process of discovering new drugs. We work with our worldwide customers in the pre-clinical stages of drug discovery before a drug is tested in humans. By providing assays that are built as mini versions of important organs such as the kidney, retina, liver and lung, we can test a drug to determine if it will be safe and effective before it is administered to humans.

How and why did the company establish – and what expertise do you have within the team?

Newcells Biotech was created over five years ago as a spin-out from Newcastle University. The company was based on the pioneering work in stem cell (iPSC) technology of founders Professors Lyle Armstrong and Majlinda Lako. We identified the opportunity in the market for improved models of human tissues and organs for the early testing of drugs. Currently, 90% of drugs that begin testing in humans never reach the market. One of the key reasons for this is that the models used to generate pre-clinical data, poorly predict a drugs actual behaviour in humans.

Using our expertise, we have focused on providing our customers with the ability to test how their drugs interact with the kidney, retina, liver, and the lungs.

Our leadership team consist of world experts in their fields including our Chief Scientific Officer, Prof Lyle Armstrong, who is well-known for his work with iPSCs, and Dr Colin Brown our Director of ADMET technology, who is a world expert in drug transporters and kidney physiology. The company is led by Dr Mike Nicholds, who has worked in the pharmaceutical services sector for over 25 years in a range of technical, commercial, and corporate roles.

How would you describe Newcells Biotech’s USP, and what makes you different?

Newcells uses iPSC and organoid technology to build multi-cellular assays, validated to provide data which can improve predictions of how a drug will behave in humans. We achieve this by comparing human cell models with those of the main pre-clinical species to study the differences.

Combining this technology with in-depth expertise on disease modelling, drug transport and the ability to interrogate the mechanisms of toxicity, sets us apart in the life science tools and services sector

How do you define your approach and does this change depending on whether you’re working with pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, biotechnology, electronic materials or veterinary science customers?

Newcells works with pharmaceutical and biotechnology customers to design studies built around our assays to assess drug behaviour in humans. We currently carry out these studies in our laboratories on behalf of customers. As we develop our assays, we will develop ready-to-use versions enabling us to ship live cell models to customers for them to generate the data they require in-house.

You moved into The Biosphere in 2019. What prompted the move and why did you choose this facility?

In our start-up phase Newcells benefited from being embedded in Newcastle University’s facilities, giving us access to purpose-built laboratories and specialist analytical equipment. Having grown significantly since 2015 we needed more space, the ability to operate on one site, and to establish ourselves as an independent commercial company. The Biosphere’s high-end laboratories, building and location give us both the operational capabilities and image we need to grow our business. The location: close to a leading academic institution with whom we have a strong collaboration and in the centre of a major city, was ideal to attract talent and grow our networks with leading scientists.

Has moving into The Biosphere helped your business develop? If so, in what ways?

One of the key benefits we have seen is the positive culture and energy that has been generated by our team setting up and commissioning facilities in a modern building surrounded by other like-minded businesses. This has been particularly rewarding to see in the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How has COVID-19 impacted Newcells Biotech’s work? What about the business in general?

Dealing with the immediate need to ensure the safety and health of our staff and their families, required us to halt and reduce activity while we put in place policies and working practices to reduce the risk from the virus. We are now operating to the official guidelines for companies in our sector and constantly review our systems with staff.

Our pharmaceutical customers have also adjusted well to the new reality and we have now seen business activity returning to normal.

Our technology has enabled us to offer a tool that can contribute to the worldwide fight against the SARS-Cov-2 virus. We have a model of the human upper airway, the main initial site of infection for the airborne virus, which contains the key surface proteins that the virus interacts with to enable it to infect cells. We are currently validating the model as an assay for companies to test new antivirals to combat the virus.

What are the short- and long-term aims for the company?

Our aim is to grow in the life science tools and services sector, as a significant company that is recognised for improving the efficiency of drug discovery. In the short-term we are focused on growing our market position in kidney and retina assays and launching assays for lung and liver. We will also be expanding our team of talented scientists and professionals who are our key engine of growth. As we grow, we will continue to expand our footprint in the Biosphere and the North East to ensure we serve our customers in the USA, Europe, and Japan.

Newcells Biotech

The Biosphere