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Pfizer, Roche Join $14.6M Financing for Mass Cytometry Startup DVS Sciences


By Adam Bonislawski

Upstart cytometry firm DVS Sciences announced this week that it has closed a $14.6 million Series A financing round aimed at expanding commercialization of its CyTOF-Maxpar mass cytometry platform.

According to founder and CEO Scott Tanner, the funds will go primarily toward ramping up production of CyTOF instruments at the company's Markham, Ontario, headquarters; reagent production at a Sunnyvale, Calif., facility it formally opened this week; and the establishment of a global sales and service team.

Investors in the Series A round include 5AM Ventures, Pfizer Venture Investments, Mohr Davidow, the Roche Venture Fund, and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.

Combining capabilities of flow cytometry and atomic mass spectrometry, the CyTOF is able to simultaneously quantify as many as 100 protein biomarkers in individual cells at a rate of roughly 1,000 cells per second, making it a potentially valuable tool for large-scale proteomic studies.

Since making the CyTOF available in 2009, DVS has sold six machines, which list for around $600,000. Tanner said that following the publication this May in Science of a study by Stanford University researcher Garry Nolan using the instrument to profile hematopoietic signaling (PM 05/13/2011), interest in the platform has risen significantly.

"We've received lots and lots of interest" since the Nolan study was published, he told ProteoMonitor. "People who knew about us are now either doing demonstrations with us or actually getting down to producing orders. We have a much better [sales] pipeline now coming in than we did before the paper."

In the study, Nolan's team measured 34 parameters simultaneously in single human hematopoietic cells – including expression levels of 31 proteins – to develop system-wide profiles of normal hematopoietic signaling in various stages of development. Such an experiment would have been impossible on traditional flow cytometers, which can typically measure only 10 to 20 parameters simultaneously due to overlaps in the emission spectra of the fluorophores used for such assays.

Instead of fluorophores, the CyTOF uses antibodies linked to stable isotopes of elements, which are then read via time-of-flight mass spectrometry. This eliminates emission overlap issues, enabling the instrument's vast multiplexing capabilities.

This improvement over conventional machines suggests the CyTOF might be able to capture a sizable chunk of the $1.5 billion flow cytometry market, Alex de Winter, a partner at Mohr Davidow, told ProteoMonitor.

"The reason we're so interested in the [CyTOF] is that we've seen flow cytometry applied to more and more problems," he said. "It's being applied to all aspects of molecular biology and cellular biology and just seems to be a really powerful tool for elucidating systems biology."

"So what you really want to do [with flow cytometry] is measure as many parameters [at once] as possible, but with the limitations of the fluorescence [flow cytometry] has always been limited," de Winter said. "So we saw this technology come along, and for us it just seemed like a really powerful way of expanding the number of parameters you could measure in a flow cytometry experiment."

In particular, he said, Mohr Davidow anticipates the instrument could do well in the high end of the flow cytometry market, competing with machines like BD Biosciences' LSRFortessa, which allows for multiplexing of up to 18 different parameters.

"If people only need to do two or four colors in an experiment, a flow cytometer is great for that and in fact may be more suited to that," de Winter said. "But once you start multiplexing above six or eight [parameters] then we really think the CyTOF is the way to go and that it will start to replace the high-end flow cytometers."

One drawback to the CyTOF compared to conventional flow cytometry is its relatively slow speed. In an interview at the time of the Science paper's publication, Nolan told ProteoMonitor that while a typical flow cytometer can read around 20,000 cells per second, mass cytometry tops out at around 1,000. He added, however, that this wasn't a particularly significant issue given that "the data depth we get is easily 100-fold or more than what we get with a standard flow cytometer."

Nolan's lab owns two CyTOF machines, and, Tanner noted, the company's most recent order was for a third instrument to Stanford. DVS also anticipates closing on its first European order later this month, he said, and plans to make Europe the focus of an upcoming sales push.

The continent is "historically a good early adopter community," he said. "There are some really superb laboratories in Europe that are quite the parallel to the best North American laboratories and are good footprints for getting into the European space" more broadly.

DVS will be placing one machine in Switzerland "for sure," Tanner said – most likely at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich – and another in France within the next several months. The company is also focused on the Asian market, particularly Japan, where it has sold one instrument and anticipates installing another later in the year.

Thus far, interest in the platform is split roughly equally between academic and institutional interest, Tanner said. The pharmaceutical industry has also expressed interest, he noted, a fact borne out by the participation of Roche and Pfizer in the Series A round.

"In part, [their participation] is strategic because they can introduce us to their community in pharma that can help us identify the types of assays that are of interest to the pharmaceutical groups," Tanner said. He added that Novartis and Eli Lilly have also expressed interest in the instrument, and that DVS expects to make its first sale to a big pharma relatively soon.

Using the funding announced this week, the company plans to ramp up product of the instrument to accommodate its growing order pipeline. Currently it's capable of having five instruments shipped within a week, a number Tanner said he hopes to increase to 15 by the end of the year.

Also key to expansion will be establishing a catalogue of metal-conjugated antibodies for use with the platform, an operation that will be run out of the company's Sunnyvale facility.

"The instrument placements [DVS] was doing before were largely to researchers who were fine with the fact that they got an instrument with reagents and would do the conjugation and tagging of the antibodies themselves," de Winter said. "But recognizing that not everyone is going to want to do that, they're building out [the reagent catalogue] to make it a little more adoptable."

The goal, Tanner said, is to have 20 to 50 conjugated antibodies available for order by this fall.

Have topics you'd like to see covered in ProteoMonitor? Contact the editor at abonislawski [at] genomeweb [.] com.