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Scientist turns entrepreneur to switch off autoimmune disease

Dr Su Metcalfe, Founding Director and Chief Scientist Officer of LIFNano Therapeutics, talks about her journey from scientist to entrepreneur.

Neurons in the beautiful background. 3d illustration of a high

It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that entrepreneur Dr Su Metcalfe is a medical pioneer. She’s Founding Director and Chief Scientific Officer of biomed company LIFNano Therapeutics, and has her sights firmly focused on the year 2020 when LIFNano, the nano-engineered protein delivery platform she invented (and is now commercialising), is planned to enter clinical trials with patients at the University of London’s Blizard Institute. It’s an exciting step closer to what Su hopes will be the first effective and affordable cure for the estimated 2.5 million people worldwide who currently suffer from Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an incurable autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system with often devastating effects over time, especially as MS starts early – around the age of 30 years.

Su Metcalfe

Su Metcalfe

Su’s scientific career started at Cambridge with a PhD in pathology. Over her years in the research laboratory she’s filed a number of patents and authored numerous publications. Her CV also features visiting fellowships and close collaborations at Stanford, Harvard and Yale.

Su launched LIFNano Therapeutics in 2013, and her new career as entrepreneur is already similarly distinguished. In 2016 alone she was shortlisted for the Rolex Award for Enterprise and presented LifNano Therapeutics at the Duke of York’s Pitch@Palace initiative. 2017 had hardly begun when, as part of the Wo+Men’s Leadership Initiative, Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS) named Su Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. Crucially, the UK Government’s innovation arm, Innovate UK, has recognised Su’s expertise and LIFNano’s potential contribution to a cure for MS, or at last to halt progression, with substantial financial support – the most recent a £1 million grant towards clinical development.

From invention to commercialisation

The LIFNano story took flight back in 2005. In her Cambridge research lab, Dr Metcalfe was trying to understand why our immune systems don’t kill us. “An immune cell,” explains Su, “chooses from one of just two ways of exerting control over other cells. It can tolerate them or it can attack them. I discovered the mechanism of the simple binary switch that triggers either tolerance or aggression.”

LIF, or to give it its full name, Leukaemia Inhibitory Factor, plays a key role in this switching mechanism. Working with collaborator Professor Terry Strom at Harvard, Su went on to discover that the LIF – a small stem cell signalling protein – was engaged in a constant tug of war for control of the switch with an opposing cytokine, interleukin-6 (IL-6).

When LIF and IL-6 are in balance all is well: immune responses are regulated and proportionate. When LIF gets out of balance, however, the switch flips disproportionately in favour of an autoimmune aggressive response, as occurs in MS against the brain. Su realised that restoring the balance of LIF proteins could halt the vicious circle of attack and inflammation responsible not only for MS but also similar autoimmune diseases.

In fact, restoring the balance of LIF in the body represents what Su describes a ‘double whammy’ for the destructive pattern characteristic of MS. “The LIF protein does more than simply stop the cycle of attack and inflammation. Because the LIF is protective, pro-survival protein, it taps into the natural pathways of the body and is capable of repairing damage at a cellular level including in the brain.”

However, the LIF protein breaks down in just 20 minutes – too short a time for therapeutic effect in the body. Su’s solution was to join forces with Dr Tarek Fahmy at Yale to encapsulate the fragile LIF protein in a nanoparticle made of the same fabric as the thread used for soluble stitches. Add a ‘homing device’ in the shape of a specific antibody, and the LIF delivery vehicle is ready to go.

Personal and professional metamorphosis

The journey from scientist to entrepreneur, from discovery and invention to commercialisation, smiles Su, “has been a very steep learning curve. Once I’d made the decision to get the LIFNano platform out to patients as soon as humanly possible, it was never an option for me to pass the baton onto someone else.”

Towards the end of 2015, two years after leaving her post at the University to set up LIFNano Therapeutics, Su started to work with advisors at Social Incubator East (now Cambridge Social Ventures, and run by the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School) who put her in touch with the only other team in the world who were using medicinal nano particles commercially at that time. “That introduction opened the door to me. Before then, I’d been brushed off as small fry”, Su recalls.

Shortly afterwards she won a place on the Accelerate Cambridge programme at the Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS): “That was the start of my metamorphosis into an entrepreneur.”

In at the deep end and learning to swim

The Accelerate Cambridge programme kicks off with an intensive introductory weekend of entrepreneurship education at the Judge Business School taught by Cambridge academics and led by Entrepreneurship Centre Director Hanadi Jabado. “That weekend bowled me over,” remembers Su. “By the Sunday evening I knew that LIFNano Therapeutics was do-able and that I was the one to do it. I had jumped in at the deep end. Here was Accelerate Cambridge showing me how to swim.”

For Su, who describes herself as, and is genuinely, shy and retiring, some of the swimming lessons Accelerate Cambridge offered en route to commercialisation represented a significant personal challenge. “Initially, I was terrified of the exposure. For instance, it was a very big deal for me to present LIFNano to royalty and the great and the good at Pitch@Palace in 2016. But I learnt and I grew, and I was so grateful for both the honour and the opportunity.”

Su’s metamorphosis into a businesswoman as confident and respected in the board room as she is in the laboratory has continued in the two years she’s been on the Accelerate Cambridge programme. The learning and support, she feels, has “kept pace with my maturation curve. In the first week of the programme I was already convinced that Accelerate had everything I needed. As time’s gone on I’ve realised I was right. There’s such a spectrum of expertise that there are no gaps. Everything is covered.”

In the world of immunology Su says, there are just “two responses – tolerance or aggression”. Popular culture tends to characterise the business world as similarly binary. At Accelerate Cambridge, however, Su has found a third way: “The support of the CJBS community is totally refreshing. I just love the interaction with coaches, mentors and the other ventures. Everyone is helpful and concerned. It’s such a positive experience.”