Aruna Biomedical, a stem cell company currently housed at the University of Georgia’s biotechnology business incubator in Athens, has developed a method for deriving neural progenitor cells from human embryonic stem cells, a company official told CBA News this week.
The company uses a patented technology to produce adherent monolayered populations of neutral progenitors to avoid the heterogeneity resulting from current methods that use embryoid bodies and neurospheres, said Aruna Biomedical founder Steven Stice, a professor and director of the regenerative bioscience program at the University of Georgia.
“The advantage of our technology is that we can grow over 10 billion cells and basically plug them into existing assays, whether it is for cell survival or apoptosis. Really anything that you can do with adherent live cells, you can do with our cells,” Stice said.
He also said that Aruna’s neural progenitor cell lines, called ENStem progenitor lines, are derived from H9 hES stem cells.
These cells are easier to work with than those derived from embryoid bodies and neural spheres, Stice said. “You do not need feeder cells, they do not need serum, and it’s a defined system,” he explained.
Aruna’s cells can be differentiated into all of the known types of neurons, as well as some of the support cells, said Stice.
EnStem progenitor stem cell lines have been marketed by Millipore since March 2007 for research use only (see CBA News, 3/16/07).
“The pharmaceutical companies that we work with … believe that it is important we perform these screens on normal human neural cells.”
“We started with an assay for ion channels, particularly α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid, or AMPA,” Stice said. A number of pharmaceutical companies have programs to increase the responses of AMPA, and it can be used as a way of increasing cognitive function in diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia, he explained.
“We believe, and the pharmaceutical companies that we work with also believe, that it is important we perform these screens on normal human neural cells,” said Stice. “That is what we can do with our technology.” He said that Aruna can screen compounds on its neural cells using Molecular Devices’ FLIPR platform.
“We use that to measure the calcium in response to AMPA and potentiators of AMPA response,” he said.
Aruna is also interested in screening new antidepressants, Stice said. “We have an ability to generate normal human neural stem cells that we can measure in an adherent monolayer culture system, so we can screen for new antidepressants by measuring their ability to stimulate cell proliferation.”
Many antidepressants work by stimulating neural stem cell proliferation in the brain, but these drugs take awhile to work because it takes some time to start turning over the population of neural stem cells in the brain.
Growing in the Incubator
Founded in 2003, Aruna is a privately held company owned by its eight employees and private investors. The research that led to Aruna’s proprietary cell line was partially funded by a National Institutes of Health Small Business Technology Transfer Research grant.
The company is in a growth mode. “Our plan is within the next year to significantly increase the number of employees as we bring on more assays and clients,” said Stice. He mentioned Athens and Atlanta as possible areas for expansion.
“The plan is to triple the number of employees within the next year; we would like to add another 20 persons or so, both on the business side and the scientific side,” he said.
Biopharma companies will comprise a significant part of Aruna’s customer base as the company grows, but ”we also see many of technologies being developed with our tools in the academic segment as well,” Stice said.
In terms of market size, Stice said that, “many others in this field that are larger, such as Invitrogen, say the market is growing at a rate of 20 percent to 25 percent per year for stem cells and assay development. We think that we can play a significant role in that still-growing market.”