How Anthony Nolan is helping to transform the treatment of diabetic foot ulcers

July 17, 2023

Foot ulcers can be debilitating for people with diabetes, and cost the NHS more than £1 billion each year. Belfast biotech company VascVersa aims to develop a cell therapy to change how we treat foot ulcers, and turned to Anthony Nolan to help. Learn more in this blog post about this unique partnership, and how it could transform the lives of thousands of people. 

In the UK, an estimated five million people live with diabetes. One of the problems people can face is a restricted blood supply to the legs and feet. Because of this, cuts and wounds on the feet can take longer to heal, developing into foot ulcers.

These ulcers can be painful, affecting people’s movement, and if they become infected in the very worst cases can lead to amputation – further restricting people’s mobility and independence. On top of the impact on people’s lives, the treatment of foot ulcers alone costs the NHS over £1 billion each year.

Current foot ulcer treatments aim to take pressure off the wound to support healing and prevent infection, but these treatments only address the symptoms and not the root cause: the lack of blood supply.

Regrowing blood vessels to heal foot ulcers

One option to improve blood supply is cell therapy, providing the cells needed to regrow blood vessels and help wounds heal quicker.

This is the approach being taken by VascVersa, a spinout company from Queen’s University Belfast, co-founded by Dr Christina O’Neill. Dr O’Neill has been involved in the academic research behind VascVersa for the last 15 years since she started her PhD.

VascVersa’s product is ANGICYTE, a preparation containing vascular progenitor cells, which help create new blood vessels in the human body. The idea is that ANGICYTE would be applied to the foot ulcer, where it would help to improve blood supply and speed up wound healing.

“This means a therapy such as ANGICYTE will provide a more long-term approach,” Dr O’Neill says. “It will provide a therapy to revascularise these awful wounds, improving blood supply and long-term healing [...] that will last and stop these awful, painful wounds from affecting patients’ lives.”

How did Anthony Nolan get involved?

The vascular progenitor cells needed for the ANGICYTE therapy are best isolated from umbilical cord blood, which is rich in these blood vessel-forming cells.

Dr O’Neill and the VascVersa team needed a reliable supplier of umbilical cord blood for their work.  They turned to Anthony Nolan, which collects cord blood for both stem cell transplantation and cell therapy research.

Speaking to contacts in other biotech companies, “Anthony Nolan had a really fantastic reputation,” Dr O’Neill says. “The process seemed very transparent, and from our initial conversations, they were really interested in what we were doing, and really keen to support us.”

VascVersa are using the umbilical cord blood samples provided by Anthony Nolan to improve and develop their ANGICYTE product. Unlike other suppliers, Anthony Nolan also take care of the transportation of cord blood samples, to make sure that fresh samples arrive in good condition and on time – which is crucial for the quality of the product.

Dr O’Neill is very pleased with the relationship VascVersa has with Anthony Nolan. “From the start, they’ve been going above and beyond to facilitate our needs,” she says, “and the communication between [Anthony Nolan] and ourselves has been really fantastic.”

I would really recommend Anthony Nolan to any other future developers of cellular therapies.

Dr Christina O'Neill, VascVersa

The collaboration has also been a great experience for the team at Anthony Nolan. “Being able to support clients who are doing such important work is really rewarding,” says Dr Diana Hernandez, Head of Translational Immunotherapy at Anthony Nolan. “Furthermore, we all learn from the experience of others, continually improving what we do and how we do it.

“It has been great working with Dr O’Neill and her team, and we hope that our research insights are helpful in improving their process development.”

Transforming the lives of patients

VascVersa  are also exploring other conditions, such as ischaemic heart disease and optic ischemia, which could benefit from a product like ANGICYTE to replace blood vessels that have been lost. “We know that our innovative cell therapy really has the potential to make such an impact in regenerative medicine.”

For now, VascVersa is going through the process to get ANGICYTE ready and approved for clinical use for diabetic foot ulcers. As part of this, they are developing methods which will allow the team to scale-up the manufacturing of their product, in partnership with the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service. Dr O’Neill hopes that Anthony Nolan will continue to supply the cord blood samples for the clinical product when the time comes.

Dr O’Neill believes they are on track for their first human trials of ANGICYTE in 2025, and is excited about its potential. “I truly believe that the therapy ANGICYTE […] will show benefit for diabetic foot ulcers and will really be transformative to the lives of patients.”

If you’re a scientist looking to source umbilical cord blood or other cells for your work, find out more about some of the ways Anthony Nolan could help you.