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Stem Cell Products Lands $100K SBIR Grant to Automate hESC Culture Process

Stem Cell Products recently received a six-month, $99,999 Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an automated cell culturing system that can scale up production of human embryonic stem cells and potentially be used with most liquid handlers.
State-of-the-art cell culture techniques are laborious, and SCP is developing a procedure that allows the robotic liquid handler to automatically culture and propagate the cells.     
Currently, SCP scientists change hESC culture media using Beckman Coulter’s Biomek 2000 liquid handler, said Veit Bergendahl, a senior scientist at the company. However, the cells are also split so that that they can be propagated by expansion.
Bergendahl said SCP chose the Biomek 2000 because of its robust and established design, and for economic reasons as well. He said the company began using the tool as part of its focus on improved culturing conditions and media that accommodate common liquid handling rather than challenging the engineering and automation to accommodate the common protocols.
SCP, based in Madison, Wis., employs 10 staffers, which Bergendahl said is enough to complete the project.
“We believe that biotech and pharma companies who would like to employ stem cell biology in their R&D would be the main customers for this technology,” Bergendahl said. “Core facilities in universities would also be customers.”
Bergendahl explained that the labor intensity required to culture and propagate hES cells prevents many smaller groups, such as those at universities, from doing this kind of research.
The goal of the work funded by the SBIR grant is to demonstrate that SCP can, in an integrated way, culture and propagate hESCs using its robotic system so that good quality hESCs are produced and the robot can actually passage the cells.
Automation of cell culture is very valuable in that it provides uniformity and consistency in both cell production and scale, said Peter Mountford, president and CEO of London-based Stem Cell Sciences.
“We recently moved to large-scale, automated cell production, and we now have six different cell lines that we grow in a very large and expensive machine,” Mountford said.
He went on to say that when appropriately programmed, the machine is actually a better cell culture technician than a person. The machine can be very gentle and many different parameters can be tightly controlled, he said.
Occasionally, removing the human element can ensure a robust and reproducible supply of hESCs, Mountford said. 
Bergendahl told CBA News that he began some of this work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the research group of James Thomson, a co-founder of SCP who first derived hESCs.

“The company focused on improved culturing conditions and media that accommodate common liquid handling rather than challenging the engineering and automation to accommodate the common protocols.”

It was an effort to prepare hESCs for high-throughput and small-molecule screening, said Bergendahl. He went on to say that some of that work led to the development of this technology.
Bergendahl said that he joined SCP last October and has since set up an automatic system that has been used to develop these methods.
The primary goal of SCP is to manufacture de novo platelets and red blood cells for transfusion, Bergendahl said. In order to achieve this goal, however, the development of robust culturing and expansion systems for hESCs is critical.
SCP has also applied for other SBIR grants from the NIH and is planning to raise private funds in the near future, said Bergendahl. He declined to elaborate except to say the grants are typical NIH SBIR grants — either $500,000 over two years or $100,000 over six months to one year.
“We are quite confident that we can achieve Phase II support from the NSF once we have met milestones from the current grant,” said Bergendahl. “By the end of the year we will have to present the results from this grant and then we can apply for a Phase II grant, which would fund the commercialization and development of a prototype. That grant would be for about $500,000.” 
Last October, the company announced that it had received $1 million in technology-development grants and loans from the state. Wisconsin Governor James Doyle also designated the company as a Qualified New Business Venture, meaning that investors in SCP are eligible for Wisconsin state income tax credits.

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