A consortium comprising three Scottish companies has secured funding to develop three-dimensional cell-based assays for drug discovery, project leader Avanticell Science announced late last week.
The two-year, £1 million ($2 million) project will be co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board, a business-led public body established by the UK government to promote technological innovation. The other members of the consortium are Giltech and Culzean Medical Devices.
Avanticell’s area of interest is cell-based analysis, and its focus is on increasing the physiological relevance of cell-based assays, CEO Jo Oliver told CBA News this week.
“One of the issues with two-dimensional assays, we believe, is that the cells very quickly adopt a shape that is unlike that which they have in the body,” she said. “They adopt a flattened shape and that shape, in turn, is very closely linked to functionality.”
Oliver added that if the cells are cultured three-dimensionally and adopt the same shape that they have in the body, then researchers are more likely to generate data that depicts as accurately as possible what would happen in vivo.
The development of 3D cell-based assays will be a first for the UK’s biotechnology sector, she said.
“We are the lead party in this consortium, which means that we have an administrative duty to perform in terms of being the main link with the UK government,” said Oliver.
As the project leader, Avanticell is most likely to market the technology developed by the consortium.
One of the challenges in creating a 3D assay platform is that the three-dimensional structure encourages the cells to take on a physiologically relevant shape, and that shape is closely linked to functionality. The scaffold used to create that structure becomes a problem when it comes time to analyze the assay readout, Oliver said.
She added that the scaffold can be particularly troublesome if the readout is based on some form of fluorescence intensity “because the light signal is scattered by the scaffold, and the scaffold itself will have a degree of auto-fluorescence.”
The scaffold will then create background fluorescence, she said. “What we have tried to do is create a solution that will encourage cells to grow in a three-dmenional format, but when we go to read the assay, we have some means of making the scaffold disappear.”
“If it all goes according to plan, we would hope that we would have something that is pretty close to being ready for market at the end of the two years.”
When Avanticell sought partners to help it achieve this goal, it did not have to look very far “because Giltech and Culzean are located within a five mile radius of our facility” in Ayrshire, Scotland, according to Oliver. This proximity has made it easier to get the project up and running, and facilitates communication and project management, she said.
Giltech develops core biodegradable and controlled-release technologies that are applied to products for healthcare, agricultural, industrial, and other applications, David Healy, Giltech’s director of research and development, told CBA News this week.
Healy said that Culzean has expertise in “knitting and weaving” medical fabrics, and provides contract design, development, and manufacturing of customized solutions to the biotech and medical-device industries.
Giltech’s materials in either a fiber or granular form will comprise the scaffold for the assay, and Culzean will use Giltech’s materials to create a structure that will go into the appropriate platform, Healy said.
“When you marry that with the chemistry that Avanticell will put in with the appropriate cells, you have an assay,” he said.
The project is still in the very early stages, and the consortium members are evaluating the core materials and basic techniques that are likely to be applied, said Healy.
The decision to reapply for funding at the end of the two-year period depends on whether the consortium feels that that the technology will be ready for the marketplace at that time.
“If it all goes according to plan, we would hope that we would have something that is pretty close to being ready for market at the end of the two years,” said Oliver. “Therefore, we would not require additional TSB funding to take it that last little bit.”
However, if the consortium encounters technical challenges, which Oliver feels is highly unlikely, it would seek additional funds to continue the project.
“[Avanticell has] already identified potential customers for the product,” said Healy, though he declined to name them. He added that Avanticell’s primary commercial interest will be to offer the 3D assay as a service, particularly for small- to medium-size companies.
Avanticell may also offer a kit, however, Healy said, which may be of particular interest to larger pharmaceutical shops.
A Cell-Based Company
Avanticell was founded two years ago by Oliver and CSO Colin Wilde. Oliver said that she and Wilde, along with several other investors, personally funded the company “and we were very lucky from day one to have sales in the cell-culture marketplace.”
The company subsequently secured additional funding, including an undisclosed amount of equity funding from Barwell in December 2007, according to Oliver. Barwell’s investment was matched by the Scottish Enterprise Co-Investment fund, and was used to launch Avanticell’s cell-based assay kits and establish clean-room manufacturing facilities.
The company now employs six people, and is actively recruiting two R&D positions and one member of its production staff, Oliver said. She also mentioned that Avanticell has recently hired a sales manager. “I expect our numbers to double by the end of the year,” she added.
Although Avanticell’s primary focus is on cell-based assays for the conventional drug-discovery market, it is also very active in the area of traditional medicines, or “natural drug products,” Oliver said.
“We are working with a range of organizations across Asia to look at helping them to modernize or ‘Westernize,’ so to speak, their traditional medicine base.”
Oliver said that Avanticell’s efforts focus primarily on breast cancer, mostly due to the personal scientific expertise of CSO Wilde.
“We are rapidly moving into the area of prostate and liver cancers, and also other disease that impact the liver,” she said.
Oliver added that from there, the company will focus on other diseases such as diabetes, and develop assays for testing new compounds and extracts as potential treatments for type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
“Beyond that, I expect that we will be going down the neuronal route, so we will be looking at conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other age-related illnesses.”