Fledgling biotech firm Hurel this week said that the Schering Plough Research Institute, will join what it calls a “joint scientific collaboration” to help it further develop and test its microfluidics-based “human-on-a-chip” cell-based assay technology for drug discovery.
Schering is the second big pharma to become a partner since Hurel introduced the technology in early 2005 and began seeking early-access partners to help bring it to market. The first, penned in early 2005, was Johnson & Johnson.
Hurel said the chip will initially be used to model real-time protein binding, metabolism, and extraction in the liver using primary hepatocytes. Future applications include studying inter-organ toxicities and the integrated mechanisms of absorption and bioavailability of orally administered compounds.
The company is currently seeking other pharmas to participate in the one-year collaboration between itself and other drug makers, the goal of which is to use the chip in contract research services by next year and to later sell it as a consumable in the drug-discovery market, Hurel CEO Robert Freedman told CBA News this week.
“The contract research is projected to be available starting in 2007, and actual availability of the devices is limited to our [collaborative] partners until it is a ready-for-primetime device,” Freedman said. “That means that eventually we’ll go to the world, but it also means that there is a quite deliberate period of exclusivity, where only Schering and J&J, and possibly one or two more pharmas, will have access to it.
“Among other benefits, this is intended to confer some competitive advantage on our partners,” Freedman added. “We want give them a head start” using the technology.
In return, Hurel stands to receive undisclosed funding along with feedback on how the chip performs in a drug-screening environment.
“Schering-Plough is deeply committed to seeking out and developing new technologies that will enable pharmaceutical scientists to rely less on animal testing,” Catherine Strader, executive vice president for discovery research at Schering-Plough Research Institute, said in a statement. “We look forward to collaborating with Hurel and other participants … to address the scientific and technical issues with this exciting new approach.”
A spokesperson for SPRI declined to elaborate.
The as-yet unnamed prototype is a coverslip-sized chip containing individual compartments that are microfluidically interconnected and contain living primary cell cultures representing different human or animal tissues and organs.
The microfluidic elements allow compounds and blood surrogate to circulate between compartments as in a living system, and the physical geometry of the system simulates certain pharmacokinetic parameters such as drug residence time or circulatory transit time, Hurel said.
Hurel, based near Los Angeles, introduced the device at the World Pharmaceutical Congress in Philadelphia in May 2005 and told CBA News at the time that it had already signed on Johnson & Johnson as an early-stage development partner (see CBA News, 5/31/2005).
The companies, which did not officially announce the collaboration until later that year, began research and development activities in January this year. Freedman said Hurel’s entire R&D operations are located at a J&J site.
According to Freedman, the first goal of the joint scientific collaboration is to use the biochip as part of a contract research service by 2007, although Hurel anticipates that product development will continue during that time.
“Among other benefits, this is intended to confer some competitive advantage on our partners.”
“By next year we’ll have our own lab facilities here in Los Angeles, some of which will be devoted to doing contract research services for outside folks that want to send in materials,” Freedman said. “I would expect that our R&D partnerships with J&J, Schering, and perhaps one or two others will be continuing with that in parallel. So at that point, we’d have multiple sites going – our own, and some at our various partners’ sites.”
Eventually Hurel would like to sell a version of the chip to the drug-discovery and research markets, but Freedman said the company has no specific timetable for this.
“It makes sense to start the contract research first because it gets us into the marketplace, and it gives people a way to try the technology,” Freedman said. “They can send us some compounds and see what they get back. That gives us more time to finish the development of the actual product.”
The chips are currently made of glass but will eventually use optically clear plastic, which will make them compatible with standard imaging plate readers or microscopy platforms.
“If you imagine these embossed into the bottom of a 12-well plate, then you have a piece of labware that looks an awful lot like billions of things that are on the market now,” Freedman said. “It would be a standard microtiter plate size that can be picked up by automated handlers, and it’s clear, so it can sit on a plate reader and be directly interrogated by the kinds of devices that exist now.
“Not to trivialize this, but other people have already done a wonderful job developing those kinds of technologies,” he added. “We’re intending to deliver ours in a format where compatibility should be pretty straightforward.”
Freedman said that Hurel has also garnered interest from some of the bigger players in consumable labware, although he declined to elaborate.
It is unclear exactly where in the drug-discovery process the biochip might be most useful, although Hurel is billing the device as an in vivo surrogate alternative to animal testing.
However, because the chip is a consumable and cheaper than animal testing, the company has said the product will be ideal for the pre-candidate stage, and that it may eventually be useful further upstream in the discovery process as people become more familiar with it.