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Cellular Analytics Eyes Drug Development Space with Circulating Tumor Cell Capture Platform

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NEW YORK – Emerging from stealth mode last week, a group of University of Toronto researchers have launched a startup called Cellular Analytics to commercialize a microfluidic circulating tumor cell (CTC) capture platform that measures real-time expression of surface proteins and messenger RNA content.  

Branding the tool as "CytoFind," the Toronto-based startup aims to develop the platform to identify CTCs and spur drug development for lung cancer. 

In order to detect lung cancer in patients, clinicians normally use a wide range of methods, including x-ray imaging, sputum cytology, or lung tissue extraction. However, collecting tissue samples is often invasive and can present risks to the patient, such as bleeding and infection. 

Cellular Analytics Cofounder and Chief Scientific Officer Shana Kelley explained that her team at UToronto is developing a technology that sensitively captures CTCs from the bloodstream. The group published a study in Nature Chemistry in April 2018 that tested the method's ability to capture cell lines and measure RNA expression in patients with prostate cancer. 

Kelley explained that CytoFind, which relies on single-cell mRNA cytometry, uses about 3 ml of a blood sample and applies two classes of magnetic particles labeled to selectively hybridize with different regions of a target mRNA. Hybridization causes the formation of large magnetic clusters inside a specific cell and allows researchers to separate the cells and assess their gene expression. 

Including sample processing and image analysis, CytoFind requires about four to five hours to isolate cells in a blood sample and produce a phenotypic profile for downstream analysis.

Partnering with FACIT (UToronto's tech transfer office), Kelley's team began laying out the framework for the startup in 2018. Brent Zanke, FACIT entrepreneur in residence and Cellular Analytics' CEO, reached out to Kelley's lab last fall to propose the idea of launching a startup centered around the CTC technology licensed from UToronto. The group incorporated Cellular Analytics earlier this year. 

"Our goal is to use the microfluidic platform for early diagnosis, and more importantly, oncology drug development [as a way to] determine drug sensitivity," Zanke said. "We recognized that it would be a great tool for [performing] early-stage clinical studies for serial and ongoing monitoring of patients who have early exposure to the drugs." 

Kelley noted that the biggest challenge her team has encountered while developing the platform involved selecting the correct biomarkers to ensure optimal levels of clinical sensitivity. The group aims to build panels of markers that can be used prior to cancer immunotherapy. While Kelley's team previously used the tool in prostate cancer research, she said that the group selected lung cancer as its initial cancer subtype. 

"Lung cancer seems a bit more amenable to immunotherapy, as [it] has been very prevalent and most patients diagnosed have advanced [stages of] the disease," Kelley explained. "In contrast, prostate cancer has more heterogeneity and diversity in the stages of diagnosis." 

However, Kelley believes that users could potentially apply CytoFind to other cancer types that shed CTCs, as her team has performed exploratory work in breast, renal, and mesothelioma cancer.

Zanke believes that CytoFind, which can look at "any kind of surface molecules or RNA expression levels," could act as a "good partner" for pharmaceutical firms wishing to performclinicalstudies for US Food and Drug Administration drug approval. He believes the team could potentially bring the technology forward as a Class II medical device to identify CTCs in a patient's bloodstream. 

Kelley said that Cellular Analytics has licensed three patents from the University of Toronto. Zanke added that the firm has raised an undisclosed amount of funding from FACIT's Compass Rose Fund to commercialize the technology.

As Cellular Analytics continues to improve the CytoFind platform, it will enter a bustling field of researchers and firms attempting to develop and offer their own technology for CTC isolation for  cancer diagnosis and drug development. 

However, Kelley argued that CytoFind differs from current methods because it offers phenotypic profiles in addition to cell isolation in a liquid sample. She believes the platform allows users to visualize cellular heterogeneity in the blood sample and see "what's going on in a tumor in real time." 

"Other methods out there are more enumeration or collection based, so you can perform offline analysis later," Kelley said. "But ours is the only one that is an integrated measurement that you can get protein profiling information at a single-cell level." 

"Rather than getting a global expression or amount of cells, we would be able to identify that in an array of tumor cells, some have low, medium, or even high expression, establishing an expression profile," Zanke said. "For some drugs, it's more about the distribution of expression, rather than the absolute amount, that is critical." 

Zanke noted that Cellular Analytics is now actively recruiting and working with partners in the drug development space interested in accessing CytoFind. While not currently engaged with academic groups, the firm is interested in partnering with early stage immuno-oncology programs. 

"If a pharmaceutical company was interested in measuring surface expression of CD47, PDL1, or markers of some other kind of immune modulating drug sensitivity, we could specifically design a targeted assay using CytoFind that then could be licensed exclusively to the firm," Zanke said. "They would benefit from the CytoFind core technology, but also have exclusive access to the proprietary test built around their drug."

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