Cell Microsystems raises $1.85M to commercialize single-cell sorting devices

Posted by on Jul 29, 2019

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Cell Microsystems, a developer of devices for biomedical researchers to automate, speed up and reduce the costs of sorting and isolation of single cells for downstream processes such as gene editing, has raised $1.85 million from 12 investors to fund acceleration of its commercial operations.

The funding will, in part, enable adding as many as five support, manufacturing and sales personnel by the end of 2019 to its current total of 15 employees, according to CEO Gary Pace, Ph.D., J.D.

The company has already installed more than a dozen automated systems for imaging and sorting single cells to academic, pharmaceutical research and government labs. And now Cell Microsystems is poised to grow, said Pace.

This successful funding round is the latest in several key milestones the company has achieved within the last year and a half. In April, the company won two National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation and Research awards totaling $1.9 million to automate CRISPR workflows using its proprietary CellRaft AIR System. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is shorthand for the complex process that uses proteins to cut strands of DNA at precise locations for a host of research applications in the burgeoning science of gene editing.

THE TECHNOLOGY AND USES OF CELL SORTING

The CellRaft AIR System, in conjunction with the patented CytoSort Array, automatically images and analyzes fluorescent signal intensities for sorting and isolating single cells of interest, including from small samples. The Array is housed in a plastic cassette like a Petri dish, common in the research community. It contains thousands of individual microwells, each with its own CellRaft, which is a releasable culture site for individual cells or colonies.

Cells are plated on the Array similar to using a standard tissue culture dish and then settle into the microwells and attach to the CellRaft within each microwell while remaining viable. The CellRafts of identified cells of interest are retrieved by a magnetic wand and transported to a 96-well plate or PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tube for either clonal propagation or genomic analysis.

Last August, the company sold its first CellRaft AIR system commercially. In September, Cell Microsystems and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill HIV Cure Center together won a $283,000 12-month Phase I SBIR contract from NIH to develop an automated platform to quantify latent HIV reservoirs.

Latent reservoirs of HIV infection are cells infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, but which are inactive. However, if they become reactivated, known as latency reversal, they begin to produce HIV again. Antiretroviral therapy can suppress HIV levels, but not eliminate latent HIV reservoirs, which is why the therapy does not cure HIV infection. Using the CellRaft AIR System, Cell Microsystems and the UNC Cure Center will screen and isolate cells to detect emergence of HIV after exposure to potential therapeutics. The hope is that the platform will offer a rapid means of testing new drugs for latency reversal.

NEXT STEPS IN COMMERCIALIZATION

Shortly after winning that contract, the company hired James Kane as director of sales. Kane is an industry veteran who has experience selling instruments and consumables for genomics applications at PacBio and QIAGEN and single-cell biology applications at BD Genomics and Fluidigm.

Kane said the company has “a very active participation in scientific conferences and will be at about 10 conferences around the country this year for various application areas, including human genetics, cell biology, stem cells, cytometry and single-cell workflows. We’re seeing strong demand in the market and are looking forward to capitalizing on this momentum.”

Earlier in 2018, Cell Microsystems won a $1.5 million NIH SBIR grant funded by the National Human Genomics Research Institute jointly with Columbia University to develop a prototype of its AIR-FLOW instrument, a consumable cell culture and imaging device. The workflow uses optical barcodes that allows cellular imaging data to be linked to genomic signatures on a cell-by-cell basis.

The three automated instrument platforms in the pipeline are:

  • The CellRaft AIR System, commercially available now;
  • The CLEAR AIR System, which has improved optical and image analysis capabilities for use with inverted microscopes, still in development with commercial launch anticipated at the end of 2019;
  • The AIR-FLOW, still in the prototype stage and hopefully commercially available in mid-2020, said Pace.

ABOUT CELL MICROSYSTEMS

Cell Microsystems is a UNC spin-out founded by Nancy Allbritton, M.D., Ph.D., Chris Sims, M.D., and Yuli Wang, Ph.D., using cell-array platforms for single-cell assay technology developed in the Allbritton lab and licensed from UNC.

Allbritton is chair of the UNC/North Carolina State University Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UNC. Sims is a professor at UNC with joint appointments in the departments of chemistry and medicine. Wang works with Allbritton and Sims in the Allbritton lab and previously co-founded another company with them.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has boosted the company from early on, with a $30,000 company loan in 2012, a $3,000 award for an industrial intern in 2013 and a $250,000 Small Business Research Loan to support the commercialization of its patent-protected, automated system in 2018.

“The Biotech Center happily funded us to start accelerating our commercial program. That came in at a good time, because that’s just when we were making our first sales,” said Pace.

“All the support programs locally have been very important in helping us to establish and grow the company,” added Pace, citing also initial support from UNC’s Carolina KickStart and $160,000 in funds matching the federal SBIR grants from the NC Department of Commerce One North Carolina Small Business program since 2014.

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