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Nicoya Lifesciences to Further Develop Alto SPR Platform, Enter International Markets

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NEW YORK – Following a recent C$20 million (US$15.7 million) Series A extension, Canadian firm Nicoya Lifesciences plans to further develop its Alto surface plasmon resonance (SPR) protein characterization platform while expanding into the UK and Asia Pacific.

Near-term Alto developments include workflows for antibody quantification, epitope mapping, and drug screening applications, with further unspecified new features and capabilities to come in the long term.

Alto evolved from the Kitchener, Ontario-based company's initial OpenSPR instrument line as a way to enable researchers to conduct SPR experiments with minimal hands-on time and at an affordable price. While affordability is a stated goal, the company declined to comment on the Alto's current list price.

SPR is an optical detection technique for analyzing biomolecular interactions by measuring the change in refractive index that occurs at the surface of a gold film upon which biomolecules are bound.

Ryan Denomme, Nicoya's founder and CEO, expressed excitement toward the diverse assay types made possible by Alto's "plug-and-play" design.

"We're not really constrained by the hardware design," he said, explaining that in response to different customer needs, the company "could just design a brand-new cartridge with a bunch of different layouts and different configurations and be able to do some totally different assay."

The Alto cartridge currently contains 16 buffer wells and 72 sample wells, with a total volume of approximately 2 microliters, compared to other systems that can require up to several hundred microliters. In practice, this typically translates to a 64-analyte capacity, since eight of the sample wells tend to be used for different reagents and user-supplied ligands.

Users can design experimental workflows on a cloud-based portal, after which instructions are sent to the Alto device, which carries out the experimental steps automatically, making the only manual steps the design input and loading the cartridge.

Unlike other SPR instruments, Alto's digitally controlled fluid handling uses voltage to move discrete nanoliter droplets within the cartridge. This eliminates some maintenance issues related to complex samples such as serum and cell supernatants, which can clog a machine's channels. The technique is partly enabled by localized SPR, or LSPR, an approach pioneered by Nicoya, in which nanostructures of gold, as opposed to a continuous gold film, generate localized plasmonic waves that can be analyzed using simpler optical detection methods that result in less background interference and environmental artifacts.

These features, Denomme says, set Alto apart from competitors such as Cytiva's Biacore and Carterra's LSA.

"Our ability to contain all the samples in the cartridge really allows us to use a lot more complex samples in our product versus a traditional SPR tool," he explained, adding that this configuration also provides a somewhat more biologically relevant environment in which to measure interactions.

The 2 microliter volume, Denomme says, is another key differentiator. A drug developer screening a large number of candidate molecules at an early development stage, for instance, may not have large quantities of each candidate, as production of only the most promising molecules will be scaled up.

"So being able to get a lot more data way earlier on in the process for small sample sizes is, again, a really, really big advantage," Denomme said.

While the Alto's most common use has been to analyze protein binding interactions, the device is compatible with analytes such as nucleic acids, nanoparticles, lipids, and antibodies, among others.

"One of the beauties of SPR in general," Denomme said, "is that it's fairly agnostic to the sample type. And obviously, you don't need to have labels on the proteins, or antibodies, or whatever you're using, either, [which] makes it a really like nice native measurement of the interaction, a really direct measurement."

Nicoya began shipping the Alto earlier this year as part of an early adopter program and currently has "over 20" customers, split between academia and industry. Academic users, Denomme explained, are exploring it mainly to investigate biochemical mechanisms and disease pathways, while industry clients focus more on drug development.

Although a large proportion of current users are located in the US, the Alto has also been shipped to customers throughout the UK, Europe, and Asia.

With the company's recent C$20 million capital infusion, Denomme anticipates growing its presence in the UK and Asia Pacific, both through hiring new staff in those regions and by increasing market engagement through local distributors. Other plans include increasing the platform's throughput and allowing it to use "different data types," although the company did not expand on what these data types would be, as those plans remain at a very early stage.

Nicoya has raised approximately C$35 million to date and employs just over 100 people spread throughout locations in the UK, Spain, and the US, in addition to its Kitchener headquarters.

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