Test tube trials

VistaGen, Capsant merge stem cells, cell culture and measurement tools for new screening platform

Chris Anderson
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SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—VistaGen and in vitro screening company Capsant recently signed a strategic commercialization agreement under which the companies will combine their stem cell biology and 3D cell culture platforms. The collaboration will focus on late-stage development and commercialization of new human stem cell-based biological tools to create a screening platform the companies call Clinical Trials in a Test Tube, intended to provide increased R&D productivity in the pharmaceutical industry.

The collaboration marries VistaGen's strength in producing stem cells with Capsant's three dimensional cell-culture and electrophysiological measurements system, to provide pharma and biotech companies with more in-depth ADME-tox screening and lead optimization, according to Ralph Snodgrass, CEO of VistaGen.

"The idea is that the combination of normal human cells, the three-dimensional culture system that Capsant brings, can generate what we call organ dots—a three-dimensional structure that looks much more like an organ architecture than classical tissue culture systems," Snodgrass explains. "This allows a more normal physiological response to drugs and biologics."

The two companies started working together about a year ago to develop an in vitro test focusing on human heart cells, derived from VistaGen's line of human adult stem cells. Snodgrass says it was Capsant that contacted the eight-year-old Bay Area company, after approaching other companies with the same idea of marrying its 3-D cell culture and electrophysiological measurement tools with a solid line of stem cells.

"After a comprehensive global evaluation of stem cell technologies, our scientific team easily concluded that VistaGen's stem cell differentiation technologies are the best at producing functional human cells, reproducibly, and at the scale needed to optimize the commercial potential of our advanced 3D micro-organ culture systems, thus allowing us to deliver truly innovative applications for drug development and personalized medicine," says Riccardo Pigliucci, executive chairman of Southhampton, U.K.-based Capsant.

Work on Clinical Trials in a Test Tube began about one year ago with a couple of pilot projects focused in the cardiac area, Snodgrass notes. The idea was for Capsant to be sure that whichever company it partnered with would be able to demonstrate that its stem cells were mature and the partner company could deliver high-quality cells in sufficient numbers, with superior reproducibility.

Once VistaGen cleared these hurdles, it was time to begin designing the commercial system, the first of which also focuses on cardiac screening and is available now.
Both companies will actively promote the Clinical Trials in a Test Tube platform to its own customers and both companies have already conducted a number of joint sales calls to customers they have in common.

Offered as a contracted screening service, Snodgrass notes there are no plans to productize the platform in the near future. "We have the experience with it and can do the screening with much greater reliability than our customers can," he says. "Offering it as a service is our preferred business model at this point."

While the first system focused on potential adverse cardiac effects, the companies also plan to offer a system that hits the other major human organ for toxicity—the liver.
Currently, VistaGen officials are in negotiations with an unnamed pharmaceutical company that should really put the platform through its paces screening a broad compound library. In time, once the platform has proved its worth to the industry, VistaGen intends to use it as a lever to partner with pharmaceutical companies interested in optimizing drug candidates and thus begin creating revenue derived from milestone payments and royalties.

Snodgrass anticipates needing to hire a handful of additional employees to staff the service, as well as seek additional capital later this year to help drive the continued commercialization of its stem cell technology. DDN

Chris Anderson

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