Emulate Scores $12M to Shake Up Drug Testing With Organs on Chips

7/28/14Follow @benthefidler

It’s an age-old problem with drug development: no matter how good a drug looks when tested in animals or petri dishes, there’s no guarantee it’ll have the same effect on a person. That unpredictability has delayed or doomed countless drug prospects—and drives up the cost, and time, it takes to make a successful therapeutic.

A new startup called Emulate, spun out of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, wants to improve the odds and recalibrate how preclinical testing is done—by using what it claims is the most comprehensive “organ on a chip” and software system created to date.

Today, Cambridge, MA-based Emulate is officially ramping up with a $12 million Series A round that it’ll partly use to move out of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering—where it’s been incubating—and try to set up shop in Kendall Square, says CEO James Coon. Venture firm NanoDimension is leading the financing, with additional contributions coming from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, the founder of the Wyss Institute.

Emulate will now start out on a difficult quest. It’ll try to prove that pharmaceutical companies and biotechs can reliably use its thumbnail-sized microchips in preclinical drug tests, rather than relying on in vitro or animal studies. It’ll try to show that its chips are different, and superior, to similar technologies being developed or sold by a number of other companies. And then Emulate will try to branch out into other industries, like using its microchip systems to test the safety of cosmetics or agro-chemical products.

It’s a big challenge—and the idea of organs on a chip has been around for years. But Emulate believes it’s got a chance because it’s based on the work of Harvard professor Donald Ingber, one of the pioneers in the field, who’s also the Wyss Institute’s founding director. The company has been incubated within the Wyss Institute for around five years, where scientists and an assembled in-house executive team have raised more than $40 million in grant money from the FDA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). They also brought in industry researchers early on to help direct the design of the founding technology.

James Coon, CEO of Emulate

James Coon, CEO of Emulate

“We’ve been able to put a lot of resources around this,” Coon says.

Coon, a former AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline employee and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Wyss Institute, and senior staff scientist Geraldine Hamilton (now president and chief scientific officer) are leading the company. Both Coon and Hamilton were executives of Research Triangle Park, NC-based CellzDirect, which Invitrogen bought for $57 million in 2008.

What Emulate has come up with is a way to manufacture tiny systems that mimic the functions of real organs—lungs, livers, and guts, among others—on microchips. Those chips can be used to run experiments and test how, in theory, a human organ would react to a potential drug. Take Emulate’s lung chip, for instance. It’s a small, flexible polymer with hollow channels running through it. Those channels contain a porous membrane in the middle that is infused with human lung cells on one side, and capillary blood cells on the other. Emulate uses mechanical forces to make the chip contract and expand, mimicking breathing. The chip has air running through the top, above the lung cells, and blood underneath the membrane, to approximate a real lung.

Coon says researchers can then use these chips as part of a “plug and play” system to create disease states and infections, test how these mini-organs would react to a drug, and then analyze the results. A lab instrument provided by Emulate, for example, maintains and feeds the cells on the chip. And the company’s software enables researchers to design an experiment and analyze the data that come out. The idea is that this process would be simple—and give drug companies a more representative indicator of how a real patient’s organ would respond to a potential therapeutic than isolated cells in a petri dish, or the reactions of animals.

“What we wanted to do really early on was create a platform that really automated this process, that made it easy to use, that made it plug and play, that made it robust and reproducible,” Coon says. “Ultimately, we’re trying to cut down on clinical failures.”

Ideally, Coon says, Emulate’s goal is to have this type of technology used by academic labs, research labs, and drugmakers across the globe—something of a new standard for preclinical testing. Its big idea down the road is to … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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