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Rod Benson | Imagen Therapeutics

Screening for personalised chemotherapy

“I was always more attracted to applied science than academic work,” says Rod Benson. After an undergraduate degree in physiology and biochemistry from the University of Sydney, Rod spent a few years in computer programming before moving to Britain.

While a research assistant at a University of Manchester lab he started a physiology and cell biology PhD (1993-96) followed by “a couple of post-docs”. In 1999, during his second post-doc, the chance to do Biotechnology YES came up.

Rod Benson Robotic Pipette
“It’s a good formula. It’s the right format. It’s a good forum. I go every year as I believe it should be supported.”

A van-load of lab equipment

“YES is great. I learnt the principles of cash-flow projection and other useful stuff. The cool thing about our team was we all had a good sense of humour so we worked through the night having a great time.”

After YES, Rod won Showcase funding from the Wellcome Trust and registered a patent. He then left academia to work for AstraZeneca, as did Biotechnology YES teammate Dr Gareth Griffiths soon after. When the recession bit in 2007 that company restructured, it began to outsource services, and jobs were cut.

Rod saw an opportunity and negotiated from former employer AstraZeneca, as part of his redundancy package, a donation of no-longer-needed lab equipment. It turned out to be their first major investment. He and Gareth formed Imagen Biotech (now Imagen Therapeutics) where Rod is Chief Operations Officer.

Applying ‘big-pharma’ lab techniques

At first they provided lab services to their former employer and others, but as the recession worsened they had to innovate. One client-commissioned study measured cell death in primary patient tissue. Rod and Gareth realised this approach might help personalize chemotherapy treatment by letting oncologists select the most potent, effective drug for each individual patient.

In 2013, under new CEO Dr Jonathan Engler, Imagen secured just over £1m to pilot High Content Screening (HCS) to determine if testing many standard cancer therapies using high-throughput HCS on primary patient samples would improve cancer therapy.

An initial pilot study in ovarian cancer gave encouraging results and a further £1.2m investment is allowing them to expand research into other difficult-to-treat cancers.

Top impacts

Imagen Therapeutics’ HCS and data analysis measures cell death directly, not a surrogate marker of cell count. Imagen also patented specific media and developed proprietary software which builds highly ordered workbooks so clinicians can determine which drugs performed best in the assay.

Improved quality of care
Using HCS of cancer cells, chemotherapies and dosages can be chosen that are most effective for each patient. This promises to lessen the toll that standard chemotherapy takes.

Supporting Biotechnology YES
Rod speaks at Biotechnology YES every year. “I say ‘If you think this is tough, wait until you experience the reality of a start-up.’ I nearly went out of business twice. The pressure is very intense. Even when you’re successful it still stays tough because you have so much work to do. You must really believe in what you’re doing.”

More information

Visit Imagen Therapeutics


Young Entrepreneurs Scheme

  • Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Nottingham University Business School
  • Jubilee Campus
  • Nottingham, NG8 1BB