An interview with Carrie Ambler, co-founder of LightOx
Carrie smiles as we mention our goal is to fight health misinformation. Raising her eyebrows, she leans back and says “I know it’s a problem. Often claims are made with the best of intentions but when not taken in context can be damaging. This is often the case with more complex issues that have many facets to the story.” Carrie is talking to us from the US, where she is visiting her sister. Educated in the US and spending her career in the UK, Carrie seems used to translating the intricacies of complex science to both academic and commercial audiences. We have a feeling we are going to enjoy this interview.
Carrie Ambler is an esteemed professor of Biosciences at Durham University, and clearly enjoys a challenge. Not content with the busy life of academia, this wonder woman, bracelets and all, is also a co-founder of a drug development company.
Fighting mouth cancer, a leading cause of suicide
In 2016, following years of research into the development of new drug species in skin cells, Carrie decided to set up LightOx. The company is on a mission to fight mouth-cancer using many of the chemicals previously developed in her research. Carrie explains mouth cancer is an under-appreciated illness which has far reaching and life changing results for patients. “Even if you manage to get through treatment and surgery, often the impact for patients is devasting. It has one of the highest rates of suicide amongst cancer patients, as surgery can be severe and impacts many parts of people’s lives. It can prevent survivors from talking and eating, leading to many not returning to work. The impact is wide-reaching and can result in dry mouth, where no saliva is produced, making simple tasks like talking eating and even kissing a life changing result.” Furthermore, alternative options for treatment are limited. Studies show patients with Head & Neck cancer survivors are twice as likely to commit suicide following treatment. This is compared to survivors of other all cancers due to the social impact that the surgery can have. The causes are often environmental Carrie explains. Drinking, smoking and chewing tobacco are all key contributors in causing these cancers to develop. There is a strong geographic link to such lifestyle choices. In India, where Carrie has met patients and surgeons recently, mouth cancer is the most common type of cancer. It is an unspoken tyrant, that harms millions of lives.
Thus, the idea of LightOx tackling this cancer with their new drugs was born. The team has developed and patented therapeutics that can be activated using light to fight cancer. It is like a fluorescent gel that can be applied specifically to the cancerous area. Much like a dentist might cure a filing. The impact could be transformational.
Building cutting edge technology using a simple light
Applied topically to the surface, the drug is more targeted. It is also less invasive than other cancer treatments which effect the entire body or surrounding tissue. For example, Carrie says radiotherapy can have side effects like a loss of taste and production of saliva or even jaw reconstruction. This is not the case with the LightOx drugs under development.
The LightOx technology could also mean patients no longer need invasive surgical procedures. Treating at an early stage of development could reduce the need for invasive surgery and therefore lessen the psychological and physical impact to the patient.
We sit back, impressed by the potential. There must be something LightOx haven’t thought about, we ponder. “Will it be affordable?” we ask. Carrie nods and says that is the aim. The drugs should be relatively in-expensive. “We would hope this feels more like a trip to the dentist than a surgical hospital appointment” Carrie concludes. This was a key strategic decision. LightOx are clearly thinking ahead.
If proven, there could be many other use cases
The research is currently in the pre-clinical stage meaning it should be tried in patients in the next year. If the trials go well, the future looks bright. Carrie nods her head as we ask if the technology could work on other the parts of the body? Whilst this is not the current focus, the potential is there. She says that anywhere that “surgery is less than ideal, from the skin to bladder, could be a great use case, so long as you can get the drug there and the light source. I see no reason why it wouldn’t work in other disease areas. The use of catheter and endoscopes would open up whole new opportunities for the drug.”
Building visibility through marketing: Challenges for a pre-clinical organisation
Yet, like many early-stage organisations, the journey ahead is full of obstacles. As a digital agency, we are keen to explore how Carrie builds visibility and builds trust in the company and the opportunity for investors to get on-board. After all, without spreading the word about the opportunity, growth and investment is difficult. Studies show online visibility can positively influence the value of a company and helps drive interest and a positive narrative can help build trust. At the pre-clinical stage, Carrie is very careful to point out that they are careful not to “over promise.” Once LightOx completes successful clinical trials there will be the potential to use online marketing to transform the company into other areas where they are less known.
Working with Big Pharma to leverage brand and build trust
In the meantime, LightOx is using other methods to advance their science and commercial goals. LightOx has secured a deal with Merck Millipore as an avenue to sell LightOx research tools. This provides both commercial and marketing advantages. From a marketing perspective, it shows LightOx’s ability to work with global life science companies and helps leverage their brand and build trust. In the future, similar techniques can be used for digital marketing to widen the audience. The more an organisation works with famous brands, the more visibility it can achieve. It does not have to be commercial deals. Creating joint content or getting featured in reputable publications is also effective.
Furthermore, LightOx targets academic publications and investor conferences to get increased visibility to a target audience. Carrie says this means they get in front of their audience with a specific message and outcome. Whilst this requires a lot of effort, the short-term benefits are clear. The LightOx team can personally build relationships and prove their collective experience. The leadership team include professors from leading universities including Oxford and Durham. They have a depth of experience working with leading biotech, diagnostic and pharmaceutical organisations too. With such impressive credentials, this approach can be highly effective in building trust.
Understanding your audience
These approaches require a lot of time and effort from the LightOx team. It is clearly more labour-intensive than online marketing. However, contrary to popular belief, many concepts overlap. Carrie says she is constantly thinking about her audience and the messaging. For some investors, she needs to deep dive into the science and commercial numbers for the company. For others, it is about inspiring them and bringing the benefits of the technology to the surface. This is important in online marketing as you need to understand your audience and target them using analytical tools and data insights. Understanding psychographic analysis can increase your visibility and help you reach the right people.
Carrie Ambler – from vision to reality
Through our interview, it is clear Carrie is constantly thinking ahead and she has a vision and a plan on how to make it a reality. She says that over the next five years she hopes to engage Big-Pharma in running phase three trials for the drug. This involves multiple trial sites across many countries and requires good financial backing from larger partners. At that point, LightOx can start looking at new opportunities for their research expanding the technology into new areas beyond the clinic. With her amicable, warm persona coupled with a clear focus, it would be foolish to bet against this lady.