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Fluidigm Wins $1.9M CIRM Award to Develop Stem Cell Culture Chip

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By Justin Petrone

The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine last week awarded Fluidigm $1.9 million to further develop its stem cell culture chip.

The grant was one of 19 made by the state agency, which doled out $32 million in total to create tools and technologies that help move stem cell research into clinical trials.

Entitled, "Development and Application of Versatile, Automated, Microfluidic Cell Culture System," the new grant is meant to continue the work funded in a previous $750,000 CIRM grant, which was awarded to Fluidigm and Stemgent in 2008.

A company spokesperson declined to discuss the new funding, citing the firm's pending initial public offering.

Fluidigm's stem cell culture chip is being designed to simplify protocols that have been recently developed to turn differentiated cells into stem cells, and to reprogram stem cells in order to redifferentiate them in a desired way.

The firm has said previously that the integrated fluidic circuit will have 64 chambers with controls to automatically feed cells in the chambers and provide a medium in which a researcher can individually and automatically dose the cells in a chamber with up to 16 different reagents (BAN 8/18/2009).

Chief Scientific Office Marc Unger, the principal investigator listed on both CIRM grants, told BioArray News in August 2009 that the IFC is being developed to overcome limitations in current methods to program and redifferentiate stem cells.

One published approach, he noted, took 30 days and had 25-percent efficiency. "You need to reprogram the cells into the appropriate type in order to use them therapeutically," Unger said. "It's difficult to get the conditions uniform, and it is very labor intensive."

According to the new grant's abstract, Fluidigm has so far "optimized and scaled up" its stem-cell IFCs into "highly advanced microfluidic cell-culture chips in manufacturable form, produced a prototype instrument to drive these chips, and demonstrated that it can culture cells, dose them with combinations of reagents, and export them off the chip."

Now the 12-year-old, South San Francisco, Calif.-based firm aims to "push the capabilities" of its system by producing a set of three complementary commercial instruments: a controller capable of full fluidic and environmental control on one chip; a "hotel," capable of limited fluidic and environmental control on multiple chips; and a reader capable of imaging the cells in the chip in phase contrast and fluorescence modes.

"The idea is to load cells and dose them with different drugs/chemicals on the controller, transfer them to the hotel for culture and maintenance, and transfer them to the reader for periodic imaging, allowing [researchers to run] multiple sets of experiments in parallel and increase even more the throughput of the system," the firm stated in the abstract.

Fluidigm is also proposing two sets of experiments to demonstrate what the system can do. In the first one, the firm will develop new methods to turn induced pluripotent stem cells into neural progenitor cells. "These cells could be used to study diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's" diseases, the company noted.

In the second set of experiments, Fluidigm will develop methods to make the cells proliferate without turning into specific types of neural cells.

"Since these types of cells are potentially useful to treat neurodegenerative diseases … and spinal cord injury, developing methods to make more of them could advance the field a step closer to clinical application," the firm stated.

Ultimately, Fluidigm has said it aims to create a set of commercial instruments that can be used for other researchers. The availability of such a system will "accelerate discovery of cell differentiation and expansion conditions," the firm claims in the abstract.

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It is unclear when the system could become commercially available. Company officials previously discussed a 2010 launch date, which has passed. Fluidigm did promote the stem cell-culture chip at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego last month.

In addition to its interest in the stem cell research market, Fluidigm makes and sells IFCs embedded in silicone for SNP genotyping, single-cell gene expression, copy-number, gene-expression studies, next-generation sequencing sample preparation, and protein crystallization.

Unger said in 2009 that large pharmaceutical companies were beginning to show an interest in stem cell research, making them potential customers for the stem cell chip in development.

"Big pharma is making small-molecule drugs, but they are kind of reaching the end of the road and it is getting more expensive to develop them," Unger said. "There are limitations [to] what small-molecule drugs can do that cells don't have. Cells take hold, grow, and can replenish themselves."

If pharma companies seized on that opportunity, it would "open up a new continent in terms of what therapeutics could do," Unger said at the time.

IPO

Separately, Fluidigm this week said it plans to offer more than 5 million shares of its common stock at between $13.50 and $15.50 per share in its planned IPO, for which it filed in December.

In its amended prospectus filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said that that it plans to offer 5,172,414 shares of its common stock. Net proceeds from the IPO are anticipated to be $68.3 million at the midpoint of the offering range, $14.50 per share.

The company plans to list on the Nasdaq under ticker symbol "FLDM," and Leerink Swann and Cowen and Company were also added as underwriters on the offering, joining Deutsche Bank and Piper Jaffray.

Fluidigm said in its amended S-1, filed last month, that it anticipates using $15 million in proceeds from the offering for sales and marketing activities, including adding sales personnel to support commercialization of its products; $12 million for R&D; and $4 million for facility improvements and the purchase of manufacturing and other equipment.

It added that $5 million will be used to repay promissory notes issued earlier this month. Remaining proceeds will be used for working capital, other general corporate purposes, and possibly for the acquisition of and investments in complementary products, technologies, or businesses.


Have topics you'd like to see covered in BioArray News? Contact the editor at jpetrone [at] genomeweb [.] com.

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