The humble cell has been getting a lot of attention in the medical world lately, and Ann Arbor, MI-based biotech startup Celsee wants to make it easier to study them.
As precision medicine and genomic analysis become more sophisticated, clinicians are taking biotech research down to the level of single cells in search of breakthroughs that might not be visible when studying a large population of cells or tissues.
Researchers say much can be gleaned about the progression of diseases like cancer and potential treatments by studying individual cells. By accessing a cell’s genomic or proteomic content and examining cell cycles, scientists can find critical information that can lead to a more complete understanding of disease progression or treatment response, Celsee says. In order to do that, researchers need the cells to be intact and viable, but some methods of cellular manipulation and analysis can damage them.
Over the past few years, a number of methods relying on isolating cells and cell sorting have been used to successfully analyze genomic data from bulk samples, but these methods can miss contextual information regarding a cell’s behavior.
To overcome those challenges, Celsee has developed a patented technology called Genesis that uses a gravity-based method to find and isolate individual cells while maintaining their viability and structural integrity, says CEO John Stark. It does this by eliminating fluidics or droplet encapsulation that can cause cellular stress. The platform can be used with blood and tissue samples, and he says it’s roughly 70 percent more efficient at capturing single cells than more commonly used techniques.
“It’s a very hot field,” Stark says. “All diseases, such as cancer, flu—all originate at the cellular level. It’s important to understand cell behavior and how it affects disease progression. There are over 17 trillion immune cells in the human body, and our goal is to find five to ten cells out of a sea of millions” that could lead to a more effective treatment, he explains.
Five years ago, this kind of precision medicine had an annual market worth $100 million, Stark says. Today, it sits at $3 billion, and “we’re just starting,” he adds. Stark says what differentiates Celsee’s approach is that it’s able to look at tens to hundreds more cells than other platforms; it does minimal damage and doesn’t cause cell death; and it can provide clinical-grade, single-cell analysis at scale.
The privately owned, 35-person company plans to double or triple by 2020, Stark says. Celsee is “co-funded by local and internal investors,” he says, and the company is in the process of raising more money from those original investors, plus additional family offices. Stark says Celsee also has “four or five key agreements” to co-develop or co-commercialize products with other entities. He couldn’t disclose the names of most of them, but did say IncellDx is one.
Besides pursuing research partnerships, Celsee is also generating revenue by selling its Genesis units to commercial customers. Stark says Celsee, which was founded in 2011, has so far shipped 12 of them to customers. In 2019, Celsee plans to send support staff into the field to help customers successfully use its equipment, and will continue to expand its footprint, Stark says.
“We can look at a cell to understand its shape, viability, and overall cycles,” he adds. “Other companies can’t do that—we can look at five to ten times more proteins than flow cytometry.”