PixelEXX Systems, a nanotechnology shop founded by scientists at Washington University in St. Louis, last week announced that it had received $250,000 in seed financing to help it develop a nanoarray platform for cell imaging.
PixelEXX received the financing from BioGenerator, a venture capital group that supports biotechnology entrepreneurial activity in the St. Louis area.
According to Stuart Solin, co-founder and co-president of PixelEXX, the funding will help the firm develop a prototype array that will be able to survey cells for information that could be useful in high-throughput drug screening and diagnostics.
“Drug screening is a major possible application for this technology, another is early detection of disease, and a third would be the ability to detect and assess disease in vivo,” Solin told BioArray News this week.
However, Solin said that “part of the intrigue” related to PixelEXX’s technology is that it has not yet been made available to researchers. “We don’t know what kinds of applications will be developed with this technology,” he said. “One cannot predict what will be discovered, and there is uncertainty there of course.”
Part of that uncertainty is the nature of PixelEXX’s platform. The market for cell arrays is extremely nascent, and only a few companies, such as Boston’s Molecular Cytomics, have debuted products. Furthermore, those companies and researchers that have developed cell arrays have relied on microarray imaging or other optical-imaging techniques to look at biological processes in cells.
PixelEXX, on the other hand, will use phenomena discovered in the lab of Solin, a physicist, to measure the physical properties of cells and capture images of those cells via an array of pixels. The technology is based on the premise that by altering the geometric properties of a solid, in this case a cell, one can create optimal properties for cellular assays.
“We are perhaps the first to use geometrical contributions to enhance the impact of desirable properties, and we are trying to make a prototype to make this technology work as an imaging device,” Solin said.
“Part of the intrigue is that we hope to provide information that has never before been available.”
“The idea is to have a nanosensor element or pixel that is very sensitive, configure multiple pixels into an array to sense perturbations in a massively parallel way, and to get an image,” he added. “Ultimately, we are going to produce with super-high resolution what amounts to a contact image. You won’t have to stain cells and go through procedures related to optical processes.”
To date, PixelEXX’s founders have been able to develop single-pixel semiconductors to measure the physical properties of a cell. Solin said that much of that development work was supported by a $17 million National Institutes of Health grant awarded to the Center of Materials Innovation in 2005.
Solin said that there are a number of extraordinary transport phenomena that PixelEXX can study using its proposed nanoarray devices. The first phenomenon that PixelEXX has settled for use in its assays is extraordinary electroconductance — the measurement of electric impulses in a solid.
According to Solin, PixelEXX aims to make an array capable of imaging EEC in cells within the next 12 to 18 months. “We hope to be able to manufacture these EEC arrays and to use them to study the surface density on cancer cells,” he said.
Solin added that the company decided to focus on measuring EEC because it is easier to manufacture and sell than a device for measuring other phenomena, such as extraordinary optoconductance, which measures optical signals, usually by illumination, rather than electronic signals.
Solin said that that PixelEXX had considered building EOC arrays. Such arrays would require an external light source, like a light-emitting diode and because EOC is already measured in some part by charge-coupled device cameras, PixelEXX would be able to play in an established imaging market.
However, PixelEXX decided that EOC arrays would be too difficult to manufacture as an initial product, and settled on the less-charted course of selling arrays that measure EEC.
“With EEC, the cell itself is a source because its surface charge density creates an electric field,” said Solin. “We will have to build the market, and that is what makes it a bit dicier, but the EEC doesn’t require an external source, and it isn’t difficult to manufacture.”
Still, Solin said that the next commercial focus of PixelEXX would be on EOC, where users would have the option to study several properties in a cell, including the transmission, absorption, and reflection of light, as well as fluorescence emission.
As PixelEXX develops its EEC array prototype, the company is also looking to establish itself as a functional company that can seek further investments and commercialize the technology.
So far, the company comprises Solin and Samuel Wickline, a professor of internal medicine, biomedical engineering, physics, and cell biology and physiology at WUSTL.
Wickline, who could not be reached for comment, said in a statement that he envisioned PixelEXX’s technology as particularly suitable for pharmaceutical research. “Nanoarrays are a new way of imaging cells,” he said. “Pharmaceutical companies will be able to study the effects of their drugs on the body’s smallest functional unit, the cell, to better determine a drug’s safety and efficacy.”
Rounding out the team are Kirk Wallace and Michael Hughes, researchers affiliated with WUSTL who will work as senior scientists at the company. Solin said that PixelEXX is actively seeking other employees, especially with managerial experience, who can help to grow the company.
“We are looking to attract others to work with the company and are in active consultation,” he said. He added that WUSTL has already licensed the patents connected to PixelEXX’s technology to the company, and that the firm believes its IP position to be secure.