Fear of needles (trypanophobia) is a surprisingly common thing. Approximately 20% of the general population have some fear of injections and about half of those have an acute fear of them! With modern medicine making increased use of blood tests and injectable medications, foregoing medical treatment because of a fear of needles can be dangerous to one’s health. An obvious example of this is when diabetics skip glucose monitoring and insulin injections, putting themselves at serious risk of complications.
As well as increased use of injections, another trend is the development and use of more protein-based drugs, often referred to as “biologics.” These drugs come in all shapes and sizes; some are recombinant human proteins like growth hormone and erythropoietin while others are based on monoclonal antibodies of which Remicade, Rituxan and Erbitux are good examples. In addition, there are viral and bacterial proteins which are used as vaccines in order to elicit a specific immune response from the patient.
What these therapeutic proteins all have in common is that nature did not evolve them for manufacture by pharma companies ex vivo and therefore they have to be carefully stored and administered to maximise their biological activity in the patient. And this is where Oval Medical, which has just been sold to SMC, a US contract manufacturer of single-use devices, comes in.
The company has two lines of business. One is designing auto-injectors for pharma customers to use with whatever drugs they see fit to put in them. And the other is a radical re-design of the epinephrine auto-injector which will compete, in due course, with the device currently being marketed by Mylan. The Epi-pen, as it is known, has attracted adverse publicity because of recent, sizeable price hikes . And these have taken place at a time when Oval has been concentrating on reducing the size of its competing product and making it easier to use.
The company has also made its new range of auto-injectors more effective by containing the forces generated when squeezing the vial’s contents through the narrow needle within the device itself. In this respect, it’s worth noting that some protein drugs can be as viscous as oil! So when a patient is injecting him or herself, he or she does not have to press hard on the plunger with the result that the chances of suffering a painful injection are reduced. Also, the improved needle shielding makes auto-injectors much safer to use than regular syringes by avoiding inadvertent needle stick injuries.
Low Carbon Innovation Fund, managed by Turquoise, was a significant shareholder in Oval Medical. It‘s always satisfying as an investor to have an exit, especially one which enables the investee company to pursue its innovative programs more vigorously due to having more resources at its disposal. The investment was originally made on the basis of carbon reduction arising from saved on trips to the hospital, clinic or doctor’s office by enabling more patients to inject themselves safely at home.
But this ignores some of the other the benefits of better auto-injector design. It can reduce the amount of expensive drug wasted by overfilling and simplifying the construction so that only the sub-assemblies including the needle and vial may need to be changed in future and not the body. Medical waste is becoming an increasing problem and there has been little innovation in this area since Denis Papin invented the steam digester, the forerunner of the autoclave, in 1679.
Although we are saying farewell to Oval Medical as a shareholder, we have high hopes for the company’s progress under its new owners and look forward to the day when its auto-injectors become the new standard for adrenaline and protein-based drug delivery.