From scientist to CEO

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Ishani Malhotra reveals the secrets behind setting up her own company, Carcinotech, while also completing her Masters research in Regenerative Medicine.

Designing new cancer drugs requires accurate ways to test them. Tumours can be unique to each individual patient and are made up of lots of different cell types beyond the cancer cells themselves. If the entire tumour isn’t killed by drug treatment, often the cancer can come back, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that drug screening requires platforms that better represent the whole tumour environment, rather than the uniform dishes of lab-grown cancer cells traditionally used to develop therapeutics.

Having worked in cancer diagnostics, Ishani Malhotra was well aware of this problem. While studying in Edinburgh for her Masters in Regenerative Medicine, she decided to combine this knowledge with her skills in tissue engineering to set up her own company, Carcinotech.

“I started the company about 4 years ago now, and we are 3D printing tumours using patient biopsies, immune cells and cancer stem cells to provide a platform for rapid, ethical and accurate drug testing. We get biopsy samples from patients, we look at the general layout of the tumour, we look at the number of cell types involved and we try and replicate that using 3D printing with cells from the patients.”

“We make sure that all the cell types from the patient are represented because we believe -from research -that you need the 3D structure, you need all the cell types in the microenvironment of the tumour to be able to have a more accurate system to test drugs.”

Another key benefit of Carcinotech’s system is its speed. Ishani explains, “if you do drug screens you’ve got 50,000 -100,000 compounds being tested at one time… you need high-throughput”. The lab is almost completely automated with machines like the bioprinter itself, as well as robots that “feed” the printed tumours with the nutrients they need to grow. They can print these tumours into a 96 or 384 well plate in as little as 10 minutes, and drugs can then be tested on them within seven days.

Picture by Stewart Attwood All images © Stewart Attwood Photography 2022. All other rights are reserved.

Ishani had the idea while working in a hospital in cancer diagnostics. The idea evolved during her Masters, where she was working on a project similar to what Carcinotech is now doing. She remembers thinking, “I could have just taken this on as a PhD, or I could take this forward as a business”. Through speaking to academics and pitching the idea to surgeons and oncologists, she developed her understanding of the clinical need and built the idea further.

With guidance from Edinburgh Innovations, she started to enter business competitions and accelerators, gaining access to training, networking and mentorship as well as exposure to funding schemes and potential investors. Since then she has grown the company, and in April this year Carcinotech closed their investment round with an impressive £1.6 million.

As well as allowing her to see the direct impact of her science, the experience has helped Ishani develop new skills. “Being CEO and running the company has been fantastic for me because I have loads of strategic ideas of how to take things forward and that has been a really fun part of trying to sell the technology to commercial pharma companies.”

High-throughput, accurate drug screening platforms like this could revolutionise future cancer drug development and Carcinotech seems well on the way to helping achieve this.

Edinburgh Innovations are here to support students and recent graduates who want to build their entrepreneurial skills and ideas. They offer support and advice to students like Ishani wanting to develop a business idea. Find out more at www.ed.ac.uk/edinburgh-innovations/for-students or @EIStudents on Twitter.

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