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U of Birmingham Spinout Michabo Health Science to Use Omics Tools for Toxicology Testing


NEW YORK – Michabo Health Science intends to use a variety of technologies and tools to offer chemical safety assessment testing to partners. The company, founded late last year, has different approaches ranging from RNA-seq to mass spectrometry to supply clients with data they can use in lieu of animal testing.

"Without saying too much about our secret sauce, most of our customers are looking for a way into using omics technologies and approaches to enhance their understanding of toxicity at a mechanistic level," said John Colbourne, the company's cofounder and CSO, and a professor of environmental genomics at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Other customers are "looking for a way out of traditional toxicity testing using animals," Colbourne said, which is what makes transcriptomics and metabolomics an appealing alternative.

Colbourne noted that while these research areas are still finding their way into regulatory sciences, because of the complexity of drawing causal links between exposure to substances and outcomes, this complexity can actually be reduced by properly formulating the question or problem that needs to be addressed. This is where the firm's expertise comes into play.

Michabo has been doing business as a division of University of Birmingham Enterprise, the commercial arm of the university, for three years. During this period, it gained a customer base interested in accessing its omics-based services for chemical safety determinations. Clients have included European regulatory agencies, producers of consumer and agrochemical products, and other companies that wish to reduce their environmental footprint and avoid the use of vertebrate animals for toxicity testing.

Colbourne joined the University of Birmingham a decade ago, and his research focuses on evolutionary ecology, high-throughput biology, and functional genomics. One thrust of his work has been around connecting gene expression and genome structure with individual fitness and population-level responses to environmental challenges. He is especially versed in using Daphnia, a planktonic crustacean, as a model organism.

His cofounder in Michabo is Mark Viant, a professor of metabolomics at the University of Birmingham who runs its Metabolomics and Systems Toxicology Laboratory. Viant's lab houses, among other tools, multiple mass spectrometers and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, including three Thermo Scientific UHPLC Q Exactive Focus instruments. Viant now serves as CEO of Michabo.

According to Colbourne, Michabo combines metabolomics approaches, such as those honed in Viant's lab, with transcriptomics to generate the data required by its clients. RNA-seq enables a comprehensive look at the transcriptome, he pointed out, while mass spectrometry can produce metabolic profiles of a toxicity pathway, identifying elements of the human toxico-metabolome.

Computational tools are another aspect of Michabo's offering, Colbourne added. By employing data-intensive testing, Michabo can provide users with functional inferences between chemicals, gene regulatory pathways, metabolic pathways, and adversity, he maintained. "The platforms are continuously evolving, but it's the approach that matters in the end," remarked Colbourne.

Michabo refers to its platforms as new approach methodologies, or NAMs. These are any technologies, methods, or approaches that can provide data on chemical hazard and risk assessment instead of using animal testing. The firm relies on a process called grouping to test substances that are structurally or chemically similar, but uses its metabolomics and transcriptomics platforms to better group these substances of interest than conventional methods, providing data that is less likely to be rejected by regulators down the road.

They use the same in-house tools to better characterize hazards, including the benchmarking of doses to estimate chemical potency. Michabo also brings evolutionary toxicology into its risk assessments, improving cross-species extrapolation of responses. In particular, Michabo relies on data from invertebrate model test species, such as Daphnia, as an early screen.

Compliance is also an important aspect of Michabo's services, according to the firm. The company is currently taking part in an EU-backed project focused on delivering chemical safety assessments without animal testing. That project, called PrecisionTox, commenced in February 2021 with a budget of €19 million (about $21 million) and will wind up in January 2026. The University of Birmingham is coordinating the effort. Michabo is also working with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to develop international guidelines for reporting omics-based chemical risk assessments.

Michabo currently employs five people, including Viant and Colbourne, but also accesses a network of consultants with expertise in law, toxicology, and bioinformatics. The firm takes its name from Algonquian mythology in Canada, where Colbourne is originally from. Michabo is the name for the Great Hare that rebuilds earth after a great flood. In the case of the company, it sees its mission as protecting the environment from harmful chemicals, he said.

In particular, Michabo helps to bridge a gap between industry, regulators, and academia, Colbourne pointed out, as both producers and regulatory agencies at times have trouble ascertaining how omics technologies can help in assessing chemical safety, while pairing that information with chemical safety legislation requirements. It has been easier to meet that need as a company than as academic partners, he said.

"To our delight, we sense that the company is creating opportunities for our customers to employ alternative methods to animal testing that would otherwise be out of reach," said Colbourne.

Michabo is not alone in the market. Agilent Technologies, for instance, offers a host of platforms for systems toxicology. Ecublens, Switzerland-based Nagi Bioscience is also offering a microfluidics-based screening platform for toxicity testing in lieu of vertebrate animal models. Turku, Finland-based Misvik Biology relies on high-throughput functional screening of cells, plus cell immunostaining microarrays in its toxicogenomics services. The latter is also taking part in the PrecisionTox consortium.