By Doug Macron
Having recently raised $4 million through a round of private financing and a grant from the National Institutes of Health, startup Firefly BioWorks this month formally unveiled its first product, the FirePlex custom assay for microRNA detection.
Meantime, the company is weighing its options to further develop the technology with an eye toward moving into the miRNA diagnostics space, company officials told Gene Silencing News this week.
Firefly was founded in 2010 to advance a technology developed in the lab of company co-founder and Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineering researcher Patrick Doyle.
During his doctoral work in Doyle's lab, Firefly CTO and co-founder Daniel Pregibon was working on a method to “capture cells based on polyethylene glycol substrates that we were patterning on surfaces,” he said.
“I was trying to pattern a substrate and … the feature I was trying to pattern wasn't sticking to the surface,” Pregibon explained. “Instead, it was floating away in the solution I was using to pattern it. That catalyzed this whole manufacturing process where we started making complex microparticles” that could be barcoded for the detection of specific biomolecules.
That process, dubbed optical liquid stamping, combines photolithography with microfluidics, Firefly co-founder and CEO Davide Marini said. “We are essentially stamping particles onto streams of flowing, photopolymerizable compounds.”
The method involves “bursts of light shaped through a mask to rapidly print complex hydrogel microparticles from streams of fluids doped with photosensitive monomers and biomolecules of interest,” according to Firefly. The microparticles are marked with unique barcodes, which enables highly multiplexed target detection.
Importantly, the particles are platform agnostic, and can therefore be used with a variety of instruments.
“They can be run on, in theory, any flow cytometer, or even on a microarray reader, due to the flexibility of our technology, Marini said. The barcodes “can be read by standard equipment capable of detecting fluorescence.”
At this stage, Firefly has specifically developed the FirePlex assay — which was officially launched last week at Cambridge Healthtech Institute's microRNA in Human Disease and Development conference in Cambridge, Mass. — for use with benchtop flow cytometers since “they are very widespread [pieces] of equipment, especially in clinical diagnostics laboratories,” he noted.
“At the moment, we support both the BD Accuri and the Millipore Guava,” Marini added. “We are starting to support the big core facility cytometers, as well.”
Currently, the FirePlex assay can handle up to 25 miRNA targets of choice from any species. Once a researcher has provided the company with miRNAs of interest, Firefly provides the appropriate particles, which are mixed by the user in a single tube or a 96-well plate with samples to be tested, in a matter of days.
A standardized cytometer-generated data file is interpreted by the firm's FireCode software suite, which decodes the particles and quantifies the targets, according to Firefly.
Already, the company has scored a number of customers through beta-testing and early-adopter programs, Pregibon said. Firefly's presence at the CHI meeting, he noted, marks the start of its commercialization phase.
The company charges $1 per target per sample, Marini said.
'Something Scientists Would Want'
Even though it has just began the marketing push for its first products, Firefly is already looking to expand its commercial offerings, Marini and Pregibon said.
At the CHI meeting, the company received feedback from a variety of researchers interested in being able to detect both miRNAs and proteins in the same sample, they said.
“We hadn't dedicated the necessary resources [to such an effort in the past] because we didn't know whether this was something scientists would want,” Marini noted. “Given the response that we saw at the conference, we will definitely allocate time and resources to develop that product.”
Pregibon added that Firefly has generated data showing that the FirePlex platform can be used to detect proteins apart from miRNAs, “but we've never tried to do it in the same sample, and certainly not at the same time.”
Marini declined to provide a timeline on when such a product might be available.
One upgrade that Firefly expects to make available before year-end, however, is the ability to use the FirePlex assay to detect miRNAs without the need for RNA purification, Pregibon said.
“We're really trying to avoid any kind of bias that can be introduced into the microRNA-detection process … from purification,” he noted.
A longer-term goal for Firefly, Marini said, is the expansion into the field of molecular diagnostics — an early goal for the company that was put on the back burner in order to focus on the FirePlex technology.
However, at the CHI conference, “we got ... interest from hospitals, so we may be … [entering] the diagnostics space earlier than we had envisioned,” a move that would require the company to begin actively seeking investments, Marini said.
Last summer, Firefly received a $2 million phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant from the NIH to develop the FirePlex platform. Around the same time, it raised $2 million from private investors.
Although Firefly, which has 10 employees, is not looking for additional capital, “we may be going out fundraising earlier if we want to enter the diagnostics space earlier than we had envisioned,” Marini said.
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