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WITH BILLIONAIRE'S BACKING, WYSS SPINOUT AIMS TO RETIRE ANIMALS IN R&D
Over the past 5 years a team at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has been building a pioneering human "organ-on-a-chip" tech platform for discovery-based work on new therapies. And it's being spun out today to make a go of it as an independent company dubbed Emulate Inc., backed with a $12 million A round from a group that includes the billionaire founder of the institute that created the technology.
Emulate Inc. is getting started with money from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, venture capital group NanoDimension, and private investor Hansjorg Wyss--the Swiss med tech billionaire who founded the institute at Harvard with a donation of $125 million. And the biotech has enough enough money to execute on a 3-year game plan, says CEO James Coon, marketing the chip technology to research labs while forging new industry collaborations.
The goal of the new company, says Coon, is to take a core group of people who built the technology--including Geraldine Hamilton as president and CSO--and then build a network of industry collaborators that already includes AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline as it sells the tech to drug developers and others who currently rely on animals in R&D. The company is starting out with a staff of 24, with an eye on pharma as well as the developing field of personalized medicine, the chemical industry and cosmetics.
The pressure to move away from animals is growing, says Coon, driven by equal parts of disapproval as well as research dysfunction; looking for a better way to get early real-world indications of efficacy and safety while steering clear of the wrath of animal rights organizations.
"There's a lot of interest in reducing animal testing," says Coon, and not just on society's part. The general lack of predictability related to animal testing--a point underscored time and again as animal studies often prove impossible to reproduce--is driving this as well.
The technology is small, about the size of a computer memory stick, built with channels lined with living cells and tissues that can mimic--or "emulate"--organs like the lung or the liver. That can be handy for checking a drug's potential toxicity issues and, when used with cells extracted from patients, offers a ready-made kit that has the potential to guide the use of therapeutics.
Intrigued by the potential of this technology, AstraZeneca signed up last fall to collaborate on a program to create a set of animal and human organs-on-a-chip to compare results. GlaxoSmithKline investigators have run their own comparison tests and declared themselves satisfied with the results.
Merck, meanwhile, has been doing some of its own work in the field. And investigators at Cornell have been developing this technology as well. But Emulate also faces competition from companies like Organovo, which has been developing 3-D human organ models for R&D.
Researchers, though, still face steep regulatory hurdles. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the FDA admires the technology's potential but is still considering whether it can replace animal testing before a company can get a green light to enter the clinic with an experimental therapy. Regulators can be slow when it comes to evaluating whether a new technology can replace an industry standard. So for now, Emulate's primary mission will be to convince the industry and the scientific community that it has a superior method for improving the accuracy of early-stage research.