It is the leading cause of blindness in the western world, but current treatments for Diabetic Retinopathy (DR) are unlikely to inspire either sufferers or the NHS with confidence.
In the case of the former, injections into the eye or using lasers to seal the damaged retina are last resorts reserved for advanced stages of the condition, which are one of the major complications of diabetes. They are also invasive, uncomfortable and far from risk-free.
When it comes to the NHS, the treatments are jaw-droppingly expensive, adding to the burden on the public purse, already hit by the costs of benefits and care services for those who have lost their sight.
And that is, the company hopes, where PolyPhotonix comes in.
For the past four years, the firm based at NETPark in Sedgefield, has been researching the potential for treating DR in entirely different manner - and one that could have an astonishing impact, both medically and financially.
Its core product, Noctura 400, comes in two parts - a fabric sleep mask and a light-emitting unit, or ‘pod’, which provides a precise dose of light therapy during the patient’s normal hours of sleep, not only preventing further deterioration of the retina, but sending it into repair mode, helping reverse the damage already done.
The business has now received NHS approval for the device and is working with clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) with the aim of introducing it to the Hospital Eye Service.
It is also running a commercial pilot around the Newcastle area, working with four optometrists with the aim of bringing into primary care as well.
If all goes to plan, the implications could be huge, with estimated NHS savings alone of around £1bn a year.
“We always knew that this would be significant if it was adopted by the NHS,” said PolyPhotonix chief executive Richard Kirk.
“We realised that fairly early and have been researching it for several years, funding clinical trials.
“Until October last year, though, we’d kept a fairly low profile as we have to comply with high ethical audit standards and have to be careful with the claims we make. Now, we have a got enough evidence to justify those claims.”
The device makes use of OLED - or Organic Light Emitting Diode - technology, something which is currently at the forefront of cutting-edge medical advances, but which also has other applications.
Indeed, in Richard’s case, the journey towards treating Diabetic Retinopathy with it has been somewhat circuitous, finding its end point through the businessman’s keen eye for innovation and potential rather than through any personal scientific expertise.
Richard, in fact, started his professional life as an artist, enjoying considerable success and living in Paris for a time before returning to the UK and founding his first company, Illuminate, which focussed on the niche area of 3D ‘printed light’ used by designers.
His reputation proceeded him and when the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) at NETPark came to establish its National Centre for Printable Electronics there, he was contacted about coming on board and decided to set up a new business.
From the start, the signs looked good - he secured a Government grant of around £3.5m to get things started - but, given OLED can be a difficult form of technology to manage and build, he realised early that larger companies like Philips, LG and Samsung would eclipse anything he could accomplish in that sector on limited budgets.
“I then became interested in medical devices,” he explained. “I realised after a while that I could produce a certain kind of OLED to meet particular requirements in that sector.
“At that time I started looking at biophotonics - using light as a mechanism for change in the human body - and I started to fund research into that but it was a long haul.
“We’ve now raised about £14m of Government research grants.”
Trials have also been conducted at a number of universities, and Noctura 400, which has already earned a range of major awards, has been put through more than 120,000 hours of clinical use.
Given its design has had to be kept stable throughout the testing phase, the device is not as refined, or as mobile, as it will be, but, having gained CE certification and ISO134485 accreditation, its efficacy and safety have been proven to the highest standards.
The mask also has the advantage of being ‘intelligent’ in that it monitors patient use and compliance.
In the case of the North East pilot, set to last six to eight months before the release of the treatment into other parts of the country, this not only means a higher likelihood that patients will use it correctly, but also that the data they consent to provide will help future developments.
“There have been lots of Government reports produced about us,” Richard added.
“And that is because we are taking really clever stuff from UK universities and driving that towards commercial business.
“In the past, Britain has been very bad at doing that, one reason being that the equity market is not geared towards long-term projects like this. So it is recognised that we are taking research through the full circle to build jobs and retain value in the UK.”
Working with Business Durham - the business development arm of Durham County Council, which manages NETPark - PolyPhotonix has got funding in place to develop a new factory, while boosting headcount in the process.
By the end of the year, Richard said, staff numbers are set to rise from 24 to 30. By the following year, that figure could be as high as 50.
And, although it may be a couple of years before the new factory is fully fitted out, costs will be ultimately be kept to a minimum, since the NETPark set-up means PolyPhotonix will only have to invest in essential new pieces of kit.
“We have access to around £40m of electronics and kit there, owned by the CPI,” Richard explained. “Effectively, that’s a £40m playground for us that has saved us having to buy it ourselves. That has meant that we have been able to operate on a very high level.”
And as to long-term goals?
“I’ve been here before,” Richard said. “I’ve created a successful company and this is my second one.
“We want to grow to become something substantial, without selling prematurely to a major company.
“I’ve never created a £1bn business before, but I quite fancy having a go. And we have other products coming through for different kinds of macular eye disease. I think there is a whole new area of research here and I think the North East will be the epicentre.”