Biotechnology is a high-risk industry, where companies enjoy varying degrees of success. Some exhibit solid performance, others bump along, to either disappear or be acquired by their rivals. But the sector has a good sprinkling of stars, too.

One of the brightest is Oxford Immunotec, which has perfected a rapid and very accurate test for tuberculosis.

Poverty continues to haunt many parts of the world and TB tends to go hand-in-hand with it. It could be argued standards of living have improved markedly over the last century, leading to expectations that TB is a receding threat.

But Immunotec chief executive Dr Peter Wrighton-Smith said: “TB is killing far more people now than at any time in the last 100 years. About two to three million die from TB every year, and that’s far more than from AIDS or malaria.”

Tuberculosis is an airborne infection that passes to those living in close proximity. Overcrowded Victorian tenements were an ideal breeding ground. As living standards and hygiene improved, rates of infection declined, and with the arrival of antibiotics in the 1950s, TB was reined in but never eliminated.

Demographic changes, such as scattered rural communities becoming more densely populated, the weak immune systems of the homeless and drug addicts, and the continuance of poverty and poor hygiene, are all contributory factors in TB’s resurgence.

Emigration from countries where the disease is endemic just fuels the spread.

The current TB skin test has been in use since the early 1900s. Its great weakness is false positives and negatives, which can mean treatment is administered to healthy patients and denied to those who actually need it.

Immunotec’s T-Spot test is rapid and highly accurate. A small blood sample is cultured overnight to give a result the next day. Not only does the test diagnose those with TB, it identifies carriers as well.

TB can lie dormant for many years. Japan has a problem with a number of its ageing population suffering recurrences of the infection.

The patients first caught TB in the aftermath of the Second World War. Their immune systems fought off the disease, but it has lain dormant until old age has weakened their immune response.

The BCG vaccine has now been injected into 75 per cent of the world’s population, but its variable efficacy offers little control over TB.

“The key to TB control is an aggressive screening programme,” said Dr Wrighton-Smith.

“The United States has the lowest incidence of TB, because it concentrates on testing those with weak immune systems, like transplant and chemotherapy patients. They screen about 18 million patients a year.”

Vital, too, is the correct treatment of TB’s various strains. Administer too little of the correct drug, or prescribe the wrong one, and the outcome is drug-resistant strains.

“We’re not far from strains that are totally drug-resistant and that is scary,” said Dr Wrighton-Smith.

Despite the T-Spot test’s clear advantage, the world’s medical profession is slow to accept change, demanding cast-iron proof that it works.

A study by the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in 2005, was extremely supportive and this has helped.

Nonetheless, Immunotec continues to lobby at every level, including governments, to gain acceptance of its technology.

Dr Wrighton-Smith started his career with Oxford-based PowderJect, running a diagnostics subsidiary.

He spoke highly of the mentoring he received from managing director Paul Drayson, now Lord Drayson and Minister for Science and Technology.

On leaving the company, Dr Wrighton-Smith approached Oxford University’s technology transfer office, Isis Innovation, looking for a spin-out. He was introduced to Dr Ajit Lalvani, inventor of the T-Spot test.

Starting with a little seed capital and an office in his attic, Dr Wrighton-Smith wrote a business plan to commercialise the test.

Pivotal was the need to raise the considerable funding to take a laboratory-proven protocol and turn it into one meeting the demanding quality, efficacy and safety standards of regulatory authorities.

Stability in extremes of temperature and humidity is essential. Extensive — and expensive — clinical trials were required.

The primary goals and more have been achieved, with the company becoming a resounding success.

The one employee in 2003 has mushroomed to 80 in 2009, with 40 staff at the Milton Park headquarters, 30 in the US and the remainder in Europe.

Many are in sales. Substantial funding has been attracted since the company’s founding. The final tranche is due this year as profitability beckons.

However, Dr Wrighton-Smith is not one to rest on his laurels.

Increasing worldwide sales penetration remains top of the agenda. Future developments include adapting the technology to other diseases.

He explained: “I’m always looking for the next mountain to climb, not the one I’ve just conquered.”

Name: Oxford Immunotec Established: 2002 Chief executive: Dr Peter Wrighton-Smith Number of staff: 80 Annual turnover: Confidential Contact: 01235 442780 Web: