CellCentric heads new collaboration with Sigma-Aldrich and TAP

Mid-February saw biotech company CellCentric leading a consortium that is supported by a competitive grant of £1.1 million, from the United Kingdom government’s Technology Strategy Board, to define markers of epigenetic change and reprogramming

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CAMBRIDGE, England—Mid-February saw biotech company CellCentric leading a consortium that is supported by a competitive grant of £1.1 million, from the United Kingdom government's Technology Strategy Board, to define markers of epigenetic change and reprogramming. Those other players in the CellCentric-led consortium are St. Louis, Mo.-based global life science and high-tech company Sigma-Aldrich; the University of Cambridge, UCL (University College London); and Hertfordshire, England-based automation systems and services provider The Automation Partnership (TAP).

Unlocking epigenetic control mechanisms is the particular focus of CellCentric, and for its part, Sigma-Aldrich noted in its Form 8-K to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission just days before the announcement that one of the strong growth drivers in the fourth quarter of its fiscal year was epigenetic products—in addition to "innovative new antibody products, novel transgenic animals, regenerative medicine, and knock-out rats."

CellCentric will work with Prof. Anne Ferguson-Smith and Dr. Ludovic Vallier at the University of Cambridge, and Prof. Stephan Beck at the UCL Cancer Institute in London. The research and its translation into product opportunities will be supported by CellCentric, Sigma Life Science (a division of Sigma-Aldrich) and TAP.

Novel tools for understanding epigenetic processes are a rapidly growing sector, estimated by BCC Research to expanding by 80 percent in terms of compound annual growth rate to be worth a predicted $330 million or more by 2013, CellCentric notes.

"The relevance of epigenetics to a range of commercial applications is growing," says Dr. Will West, CEO of CellCentric. "Better methods and tools for measuring and monitoring epigenetic changes within cells are going to be key to translating research into commercial opportunities."

"Epigenetics is a key growth area and iPS cells [induced pluripotent stem cells] in particular have emerged as immensely useful tools for the modeling of human diseases, therapeutics R&D, regenerative medicine and the development of personalized cell replacement therapies," adds Dr. Dave Smoller, president of Sigma-Aldrich's Research Biotech Business Unit. "Sigma-Aldrich has made it a priority to provide definitive biological products and services for the iPS cell research community.  Through working together with such a well-positioned consortium, we hope to deliver new methods and tools to aid researchers and accelerate the products of the future."

The organizations are keen to unlock the secrets of epigenetics, as it is at the heart of the modification of DNA and its associated proteins. The epigenetic imprint is dynamic and plays a key role in cell fate control, they note, "and when epigenetic processes go awry, disease can result. Conversely, by modulating the epigenetic imprint mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent, and thus have characteristics of stem cells."

A key challenge is the lack of availability of reliable markers to measure epigenetic-related reprogramming events within cells, according to CellCentric and Sigma Aldrich. Such tools will be required for monitoring the quality of  iPS cells and their differentiation potential. The new collaboration will address this issue, which not only has implications for regenerative medicine, but also may cross over into the areas of identifying novel markers of disease and improving disease modeling and drug screening.

"This exciting new collaboration will help accelerate our understanding of how epigenetic changes with functional relevance can be profiled and monitored during induced pluripotency," says Ferguson-Smith, who teaches developmental genetics at the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. "As this area expands, the need for reliable methods to measure iPS cell change will be essential. I am really looking forward to working with this partnership."

CellCentric's scientific founder, Prof. Azim Surani, is among the pioneers who demonstrated that cell function can be made to change through modifying epigenetic processes, and that stem cell-like qualities can be induced through epigenetic imprint erasure. According to CellCentric, "In addition to cellular reprogramming, this type of knowledge has particular importance when considering novel targets to address proliferative and intractable tumor cell populations, sometimes known as cancer stem cells."

West maintains that CellCentric's "dominant innovation platform" makes it a natural partner for pharmaceutical companies seeking to enter emerging field of epigenetics, something that his company has already begun doing, he notes, collaborating with a handful of top-tier pharma companies that are looking for novel epigenetic targets and greater understanding of cell reprogramming.

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