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Vitra Bioscience Closes Doors as Investors Pull Out; Company Selling Cell-Assay Tech


Vitra Bioscience, which commercially launched its flagship CellCard multiplexed cell-based assay system at the beginning of this year, has closed its doors and is currently seeking potential suitors to acquire all of the company's assets, according to two former Vitra officials.

Ilya Ravkin, the company's co-founder and chief technology officer, told CBA News at IBC's High-Content Analysis conference held earlier this month in Washington, DC, that Vitra has "shut down" operations.

Ravkin, who spoke at the conference, was listed in the official program as being affiliated with Vitra. However, he introduced himself at the meeting as an "independent consultant." When asked if he had parted ways with Vitra, he said "it's more like they have parted ways with me."

Ravkin went on to say that the company had closed down, but declined to comment further. Subsequent calls placed to Vitra's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., went unanswered. In addition, an operator at Vitra's European sales and service office in Cambridge, UK, confirmed that the company had moved out of the building there a "couple of months ago."

Last week, John Schneider, Vitra's vice president of marketing and business development, confirmed that almost everyone at Vitra has been laid off, and that a few people are continuing to tie up loose ends, but are no longer salaried. It is unclear exactly how many people Vitra employed; the company had no other offices besides the California and UK locations.

"Even though the company's investors chose not to continue to invest, there has been as little damage as possible. There are real customers out there, and everybody is trying to do the right thing."

"We're in the process of a bidding process to sell everything to somebody," Schneider said. "We're taking bids to sell off all of the intellectual property, the work in process, and existing customers."

Schneider said that Vitra's decision to close shop essentially came down to a lack of funding.

"This was a venture-based startup, and we didn't expect to break even for another year or so," he said. "But the climate for investment … is in a down phase. There weren't places we could go to find the funding, and the [merger and acquisition] market also hasn't been there.

"Even though the company's investors chose not to continue to invest, there has been as little damage as possible," he added. "There are real customers out there, and everybody is trying to do the right thing."

The news comes as a surprise to industry insiders as Vitra's flagship technology, the CellCard system, had just been launched in January (see CBA News, 1/25/2005 []), and had been receiving positive reviews at conferences and in peer-reviewed journal articles. The company also had raised $5.5 million in July 2004 to support the CellCard launch (see CBA News, 7/20/2004).

Calls to several of the company's investors and directors mostly were not returned. Paul Howard, Vitra's representative at investor Mediphase Venture Partners, declined to comment, instead referring questions to CEO Andrew Whiteley, who did not respond in time for this issue.

Vitra had been actively courting collaborators in pharma and biotech to develop highly multiplexed cell-based applications for CellCard such as secondary and toxicology screening, lead optimization, and assaying primary cells from multiple patients to assess population variation in vitro in the pre-investigational drug-discovery stage.

One of those collaborators was Bristol Myers Squibb, which had been using the CellCard system on an evaluation-for-purchase basis (see CBA News, 11/2/2004). Taosheng Chen, a senior research investigator in the lead discovery division at Bristol-Myers Squibb who had been spearheading the partnership, had presented positive results at several meetings over the past year from cancer cell studies using CellCard, and also co-authored a recently published peer-reviewed paper in Expert Review of Molecular Diagnostics along with Vitra scientists [2005 Sep; 5(5): 817-29].

"I am surprised that they disappeared, because I think that it's a technology with a lot of potential."

Last week, Chen told CBA News that he was surprised by the news. "I haven't had any direct conversation with anybody in the company recently, but indirectly I heard from a few others that they are undergoing some financial hardships," he said. Chen, who is based in Wallingford, Conn., said that Oren Beske, Vitra's representative for that region and a co-author on the research paper, left the company approximately two months ago.

"I am surprised that they disappeared, because I think that it's a technology with a lot of potential," Chen said — although apparently not enough potential for BMS to make an immediate investment in CellCard, which may have been part of Vitra's problem.

"They gave us a unit to use, and some time ago we decided that it was unfair that we never paid for the machine, so we returned it to them," he said. Chen added that this was mostly due to internal budget constraints, and not because of any shortcomings of the technology.

"To be honest, it is still on our radar," he said. "As soon as we have the money — because the money is not just for the machine, but for the whole implementation plan — we will revisit it." Last year, Chen presented data from initial studies of CellCard that said the system "afforded a 10-fold reduction in reagent usage for comparable cell-plate densities, and as much as a 100-fold reduction in cell usage per data point."

Vitra's Whitely had previously told CBA News that the company had placed units for evaluation with as many as seven unidentified pharmaceutical companies, but Vitra never publicly announced it had made an actual sale. Bristol Myers Squibb is the only company that Vitra disclosed as an evaluation-for-purchase partner.

The CellCard system comprises a reagent dispenser, plate reader, analysis software, and the CellCard "carrier" consumable — a microscopic chip, or card, on which various cell types can be grown.

The long sides of each approximately 500-by-300-micron card have colored strips on them that act as a bar code of sorts so different cards can be distinguished from one another under a microscope. Different cell types are grown to confluence on different color-coded cards.

The cards are then heterogeneously deposited in the wells of a microtiter plate. The CCD-camera-based brightfield scanner captures images of each well, and the CellCard software recognizes the various bar codes in each well and associates them with the proper cell type, according to the company. Finally, one of a variety of assays — typically fluorescence- or luminescence-based — is performed in each well, and the reader captures images again, thus allowing researchers to see the results of an assay against several different cell types, using several different compounds, simultaneously.

Early this year, Vitra introduced a nuclear translocation assay for use on the CellCard system. In addition, BMS had been using the system for five different assays related to cell proliferation: live/dead assays for membrane integrity; activation of caspase-3 and TUNEL assays for apoptosis; mitotic index assays for cell cycle; and BrdU incorporation assays for cell proliferation.

In June, Simon Goldbard, Vitra's co-founder and vice-president of product development, said that Vitra was branching out to different possible application areas with its Primary Cell Program, in which it would seek pharmaceutical partners to assay primary cells from patients to try and assess population variation in vitro in the pre-investigational drug-discovery stage. This announcement coincided with positive data the company presented along with Cambrex Bioscience that used CellCard to look at the effect of the glitazone family of diabetes-management drugs on human primary adipocytes from 10 different patients (see CBA News, 6/6/2005).

Schneider stressed that people continue to be interested in the potential of the technology.

"When prospective buyers talk with customers that have used this system, they are blown away by what it can do," Schneider said. "We still have real customers, we're still manufacturing CellCards, and people are still using the technology. When a stable, profitable company gets a hold of this technology, it will be great for them."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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