Small Talk: The engineers who are building human tissue

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The Independent Online

The possible discovery of flowing water on Mars is yet another example of how science fiction is becoming science fact. And it's not just in outer space.

Back on earth, just look at the area of regenerative medicine, which uses donor tissue from either humans or animals (most commonly, pigs) to patch up patients suffering everything from heart disease to diabetes.

Tissue Regenix, which launched on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) last summer, hopes to be a key player in this nascent industry. Using tissue-engineering research pioneered by Professor Eileen Ingham and Professor John Fisher at the University of Leeds, the company has patented an innovative way of stripping the cells away from the donor structure – a heart valve, for example – leaving only the generic collagen structure to be implanted. The patient's own body then overlays the "biological scaffolding" with its own tissues.

The potential market is massive, given the perpetual shortages of human donors. The use of immuno-suppressant drugs to counteract the rejection of foreign tissues is a far-from-ideal long-term solution.

Tissue Regenix has a range of different applications for its technology, but the most eye-catching in the current corporate climate is its woundcare product. The stripped-down skin patch for use treating diabetic ulcers is currently being trialled by the NHS.

Meanwhile, there are growing signs that the much-predicted consolidation is ramping up in the woundcare sector.

Last month, Apax spent $6.3bn (£3.8bn) buying New York-listed KCI, a medical technology group whose fastest-growing segment is its woundcare business. And in May, pharma giant Shire snapped up Advanced BioHealing, a direct competitor to Tissue Regenix in the regeneration space.

Last week, Tissue Regenix received its first overview by City analysts. Peel Hunt, which took over as house broker in November, describes the company as "one of the most exciting medical device opportunities". It is one to watch.

Breathing easy with Vectura

Respiratory specialist Vectura last week announced two licensing deals for the development of its VR315 treatment for asthma and COPD, a smoking-induced breathing problem.

Catchily-named VR315 is a generic version of a branded therapy which commands a whopping $8bn market worldwide. Vectura's copy is already licensed in Europe, to Swiss drugs giant Novartis, and expected to go on the market within the coming year or so.

As of Wednesday, it is also licensed for the US market – with a company which remains anonymous for commercial reasons. And on Friday Vectura announced an agreement for the rest of the world, in a second deal with the Novartis generics division, Sandoz.

"This is a real step change for Vectura," Chris Blackwell, the chief executive, said. "It puts us in a really strong position."

VR315 is not the only major development the company is working on. Two more major products – which also treat COPD – will come to fruition in the next one to two years, and are expected to give a major boost to revenues.

The company is garnering considerable support amongst City analysts. Peel Hunt's Stefan Hamill described the latest VR315 licensing deals as "a signal of confidence" that "puts to rest any lingering doubts over Vectura's technology. "In a week where growth and sovereign concerns have come further to the fore, Vectura offers a structural play on austerity," he says.

Investors seem to agree. The company's stock rose by 2 per cent on Friday – taking it up by more than 100 per cent over the last 12 months – despite the turmoil in the world's equity markets.

A new way to tempt investors

With credit still tight and few interesting initial public offerings to tempt investors, Patrick Gruhn, the founder of Elevator investment magazine, has turned his sights to the private equity market.

FirstPEX – billed by Mr Gruhn as Europe's first secondary market for private equity investments – was soft launched in Switzerland last month and is set to go live in the UK by the end of this year.

Small British companies and entrepreneurs will be able to list on the site, offering holdings to registered investors, who will also be able to trade their stakes online. The technology allows buyers and sellers to trade, via a traditional auction process, with no intermediaries and with complete transparency as to bid-offer prices.

"The idea is simple: provide a solution for investors and business owners to trade non-liquid assets in a swift and cost-efficient manner," Mr Gruhn explains.

LPO Ventures – the company set up by Mr Gruhn to create FirstPEX – expects trading to hit more than €1bn (£871m) over the next 12 to 18 months, and to €10bn by 2015.

At the moment, British companies can list on the site, but the only registered buyers are Swiss (of which there are around 80, so far). But by the end of the year the market will be opened up to investors from the UK as well.