DURHAM, N.C.—Celldom Inc. has received a $1.5-million Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences to advance its single-cell analysis technology platform, with a heightened focus on drug-resistant cancer cells. Launched out of Duke University in 2016, Celldom is a seed-stage biotech company working to refine its TrapTx Analyzer System, which is able to process both phenotypic and genotypic cell data at a massive scale with the promise of advancing research, drug discovery and drug development by illuminating diversity in cell populations.
Upon launching, Celldom shared a compelling origin story: “Gordon Moore once said that if the auto industry advanced as rapidly as the semiconductor industry, a Rolls Royce would get half a million miles per gallon, and it would be cheaper to throw it away than to park it. Celldom says that if biology advanced as rapidly as the semiconductor industry, a biopharma company would be able to analyze half a million drugs per year, and it would be cheaper to fund that effort than what it costs annually to run a typical cell biology laboratory.”
Now, two years later, they have received a major investment in their “Rolls Royce,” the TrapTx system. This SBIR grant was preceded by a Phase I grant which allowed them to establish the efficacy of the system—reportedly proving that the platform can efficiently organize tens of thousands of single cells on a standard cell culture plate-sized microfluidic chip, and then track the growth rates of single cell clones over time.
According to Dr. Zachary Forbes, Celldom’s co-founder, president and CEO, Phase I allowed them to prove that the methodology—relying on hydrodynamic methods and optimized chip designs—was effective and worth further investment.
“In Phase I of this SBIR grant, we established proof of principle that Celldom’s microfluidic chips and hydrodynamic trapping workflow are capable of organizing an array of single cells at high density (>100,000 single cells can be organized in a footprint the size of a standard cell culture plate) and with high efficiency (~90% of the trap sites contain a single cell),” asserts Forbes. “We have successfully formed single-cell arrays from a variety of cell lines, including suspension cancer cells such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells (MV4;11) and a chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) cell line (K-562), and adherent cells, such as non-small cell lung cancer (PC-9), breast cancer (MDA-MB-231) and melanoma cell lines (A-375). We further showed the ability to transfer the trapped cells into environments which allow them to proliferate for seven days or more. Finally, we demonstrated the ability to measure drug responses on chip that are comparable to results obtained in standard bulk cell culture conditions.”
Receipt of the Phase II grant will allow Celldom to invest in the technology and make it available through contract research services starting in 2019. They have made three key hires in the areas of molecular biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics, and doubled their footprint at Biolabs NC in Durham’s Research Triangle.
According to Forbes, Phase II has huge potential beyond the NIH project. “Rather than thinking about our product development in terms of the NIH nomenclature, in parallel with our Phase II grant we are moving forward with the integration of our private beta systems and all validated workflow steps into a benchtop instrument with beautiful protocols for cancer drug resistance assays,” he said.
As their usable datasets continue to grow, Celldom expects to increase their protocols in oncology while expanding into immunology and stem cell biology.
“Cancer patients often relapse because their tumors contain drug-resistant cells, which though initially present at small fractions, become enriched during treatment to yield incurable tumors. Traditional approaches to identify, isolate and then examine drug-resistant cells can require months of labor-intensive work, which is often prohibitive for the early stages of drug candidate identification,” said Dr. Kris Wood, Celldom co-founder and an assistant professor of cancer biology at Duke University. “Our system has great potential to rapidly test for drug-resistant cells and provide insights towards developing therapeutics that target resistance mechanisms. Celldom has created an open platform for innovation across a myriad of cell types and applications where rare events in biology require investigation.”