San Diego startup TissueNetix will by the end of this year make two services available for screening human heart cells in order to eliminate toxic compounds during the drug discovery process, according to the company's CEO.
Robert Ellis told BioArray News that TissueNetix is preparing to introduce its Wave technology platform as a service in the second quarter. A second product for cardiotoxicity screening, called the Cardiac Cell Conduction Array, will also be launched as a service later this year.
According to Ellis, Wave will allow users to characterize the quality of cardiomyocytes, while the CCCA will enable the screening of drug compounds against the cells.
The Wave assay is based on muscular thin film technology developed in the laboratory of Kevin Kit Parker at Harvard University and licensed to TissueNetix in January. Parker, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has previously demonstrated the ability to grow heart muscle films in a Petri dish. As part of the agreement, Parker became co-chair of TissueNetix's scientific advisory board. The other co-chair is Roberta Gottlieb, a cardiac cell biology expert.
Using Parker's approach, TissueNetix aims to develop and launch the Wave organ-on-chip cardiotoxicity assay to assess the quality of networked cardiomyocytes.
"The Wave assay addresses an unmet need to establish a standard for what makes a good stem-cell-derived human cardiomyocyte," Ellis said, adding "this lack of standards represents significant risk in quality and reliability of data generated, and the Wave assay will set a standard which researchers can trust."
Since the licensing agreement with Harvard was signed two months ago, Ellis said that TissueNetix spent several weeks in Parker's lab studying the technology in order to transfer it to its lab in San Diego. The company has also acquired the equipment to perform the assay and hired personnel to conduct the service.
Privately held TissueNetix has been in operation since November 2011. The company is led by Ellis, who previously worked at BioTrove in the same role, and saw the sale of that firm's businesses to Life Technologies and Agilent Technologies. He also has an array industry pedigree, having served as executive vice president of Affymetrix, where he helped set Affymetrix Laboratories.
TissueNetix is also led by its president, David Giegel. Before founding the firm, Giegel was senior director of molecular sciences at Celgene, a multinational biopharmaceutical company, where he was responsible for overseeing in vitro drug discovery efforts at its San Diego research site.
It is this biopharma background that laid the foundation for the company. TissueNetix's activities are directed at providing a way to screen prospective drugs for cardiotoxicity, a "key bottleneck" in the drug discovery process, as it claims on its website. As cardiotoxicity is the "leading cause for drug failure" and "often goes unnoticed until advanced clinical trials," predicting cardiotoxic effects during the early stages of drug development is the "goal of many pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies."
TissueNetix is positioning its offerings as an alternative to existing methods, including those that are based on a non-human, non-cardiac cell line, and others that rely on human-induced pluripotent stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes. According to the firm's website, the latter approach lacks "proper organization, falling short in providing an accurate model of human cardiac tissue."
At the time of the Harvard deal, Ellis in a statement portrayed TissueNetix's licensing of Parker's technology as a "milestone" that will enable the firm to bring to the market the "next generation of tools for measuring cardiotoxicity using iPSCs in the drug-development process." The firm's service, he said, will "allow developers to make more informed decisions in bringing safer drugs to the market and have significant financial benefits for them."
Ellis added this week that the company is already in discussions with "several" pharmaceutical companies that are interested in accessing the Wave service.
In addition to Wave, Ellis said the firm has an internally developed assay it plans to debut in the third quarter. Like Wave, the CCCA "addresses a need in the market" for a "more accurate predictor of cardiac toxicity in the drug development process," he said.
According to TissueNetix's website, the CCCA relies on cells that are iPSC-derived that demonstrate accurate beating and conductivity. The cells are induced to align in parallel and form appropriate connections. The resulting "sheet of cells" displays "synchronous beating" and "behaves in a manner that is … similar to what is observed in an actual heart," the firm claims.
TissueNetix aims to array cardiomyocytes in a traditional microscope slide format so that they can be assessed for drug delivery and electrical monitoring. The firm's slides are designed to "ensure that cells are perfectly organized on each slide, every time," it claims.
TissueNetix suggests on its website that a number of applications can be carried out using the CCCA. These include drug discovery for anti-arrhythmic agents; electrical pacing; fluorescence imaging; monitoring individual cell action potentials; monitoring conduction along the linearly arrayed cells; and cardiac excitation or electrophysiological challenges for pro-arrhythmogenic effects of drugs.
According to Ellis, TissueNetix will offer the CCCA as a service in Q3 and then by the end of the year will introduce a 96-well format that will "plug in" to existing automation workflows in lead discovery laboratories and will rely on existing high-content screening imagers.
He added that TissueNetix believes that its Wave and CCCA assays complement each other in that Wave will be used in house to characterize the stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes that are made available for screening on the CCCA chip.