12.08.2022 - Biomedicine, Startups

Organs-On-A-Chip also being developed in Latvia

The biotechnology startup Cellbox Labs is developing organs-on-a-chip that could help pharmaceutical companies test new drugs more efficiently. The company’s first product is intestine-on-a-chip. Lungs-on-a-chip will be next.

Cellbox Labs wants to create an organ-on-a-chip industry in Latvia and develop a high-tech company here.

“In the future, we want to achieve unicorn status because we are working on a technology with huge potential. We will be able to make the drug development process more efficient, cheaper and more accessible worldwide,” says Gatis Mozoļevskis, co-founder of Cellbox Labs.

To become a unicorn and be worth more than a billion dollars, the pace of development must be accelerated. This is to be achieved through investment. It is planned to raise 2.5 million euros over the next year. He believes that funding could be sought here in Europe but does not rule out the possibility of an investor from the US. So far, Cellbox Labs, together with its partners the Latvian Biomedical Research and Study Centre (BMC) and the Institute of Electronics and Computer Science, has attracted funding from the European Regional Development Fund for three projects, totalling 1.5 million euros. However, there are processes and competences that cannot be developed with research grants, so the company is working on raising venture capital in parallel.

Miniature Organ Replicas

What exactly are organs-on-a-chip? They are miniature replicas of organs outside the human body, explains Mozoļevskis. They do not replace a real organ but serve as a test model. It is called a chip because it is mostly made using the semiconductor technology, as in a telephone.

In the case of Cellbox Labs, it is a plastic chip the size of a credit card, with microchannels stacked on top of each other. They are very small: from 200 microns to one millimetre. Between these channels is a semi-permeable membrane that mimics the walls of human organs. The chip has two channels, one of which mimics organ tissue and the other blood vessels. By adding a special flow of fluids, pressure is exerted on the cells, and they are nourished. The process of elimination of cellular waste is also similar to that of the human body.

Watch a video of Mozoļevskis talking about this technology on the Latvian Investment and Development Youtube channel!

From Science to Startup

The startup has its roots in 2019, when BMC started collaborating with the Institute of Solid State Physics (ISSP) at the University of Latvia. BMC was represented by Artūrs Ābols, and ISSP by Mozoļevskis and Roberts Rimša. The BMC scientists were working on cancer biomarkers and had heard about organs-on-a-chip, while the ISSP scientists had knowledge of microfluidics, which is needed for the production of chips for biology.

Pretty quickly they all realised that this idea had great commercial potential. Scientists started participating in hackathons and various competitions. When the team received their first grant in the EIT Innostars competition of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Knowledge and Innovation Community EIT Health in 2020, they set up a company. This was followed by other awards and competition wins: funding from Prototron, a place in the top five of the Science Based Camp and the final of TechChill’s Fifty Founders Battle. Last year, the company won a 30,000-euro prize in the EIT Manufacturing competition and has recently reached the semi-finals of the EIT support programme Health Catapult.

​Cellbox Labs also recently took part in a five-week entrepreneurship programme in Silicon Valley organised by Draper University. “This programme gave us the opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs who are also developing very interesting ideas, as well as to listen to speeches and discussions by successful entrepreneurs and venture capital fund investors,” says Mozoļevskis. Various workshops were also organized. During the programme, a demo day was held, where 59 companies presented their businesses and Cellbox Labs was voted the second best. Six companies were organised a joint dinner with billionaire venture capitalist Tim Draper, a presentation on the Stonks platform during the demo day and support in raising venture capital in Silicon Valley.

While all three founders come from a scientific background, they also have business experience. For example, Mozoļevskis has worked in startups both in Latvia and in Silicon Valley. “The startup environment is familiar to us,” he says.

First Product: Intestine-On-A-Chip

The company’s first product is an intestine-on-a-chip. It allows to test the effect of a drug, obtaining more information than from in vitro models used so far. “The gut contains villi structures that cannot be obtained by growing them in a petri dish. Yes, animals are used a lot, and this method has several advantages. First of all, these are living organisms. Secondly, you can see the effect of drugs on the whole organism, for example, that a drug cures a particular disease but damages the liver. However, the effect of drugs on humans is not exactly the same as on animals. It is no coincidence that less than 10% of all drug candidates go through clinical trials,” says Mozoļevskis.

Cellbox Labs has succeeded in obtaining anaerobic microbiota from fecal samples that are able to grow in the gut on a chip in the absence of oxygen.

“As far as we know, we are the only ones in the world to have done this so far,” says Mozoļevskis.

CellBox Labs is also working on a lung-on-a-chip. 

“Another unique feature of this technology is that we can grow microbiota. That is, we can take a sample of a person’s microbiota, grow it on a chip and test different drugs and their effects on the microbiota. The classic example would be to test probiotics. Currently, many doctors recommend yoghurt and tea mushroom because most of the industrially produced probiotics have not been tested,” says Mozoļevskis.

Academic and Industrial Chip

On the state of development of the company’s intestine-on-a-chip, Mozoļevskis says that it is currently based on commercial cells. The chip still needs improvements so that it can be mass-produced. “We have two types of chips: one is an academic chip to test the concept and prove the technology scientifically, and the other is an industrial chip. On the academic chip, we test how the technology works and then adapt and use it on the industrial chip,” says Mozoļevskis.

The next step is to test the chip on patient or stem cells. This step is important for pharmaceutical companies to really benefit from the technology. This is expected to be done in the first half of 2023. Parallel work is also underway on a chip that is more user-friendly and easier to use.

The company has acquired patent rights for technology developed by the Institute of Solid State Physics at the University of Latvia, which enables faster, cheaper and more efficient toxicity and efficacy testing of drugs at the pre-clinical stage, Labs of Latvia wrote.

Using a Different Method and Materials

Unlike other companies in the industry, Cellbox Labs uses different materials and chip-making technology. It has a patent application pending, so Mozoļevskis cannot say much about it at the moment. But it is a material that does not absorb drugs, which allows the technology to replicate the biology of the human body more accurately.

“We have approached this technology from a different angle, addressing the challenges of biology with engineering solutions. So far, no other company has used such an approach,” says Mozoļevskis.

He says that many others are developing chips by piecing together off-the-shelf components, without thinking carefully about the overall process and how easy it will be to scale up, resulting in a system that is difficult to use. Cellbox Labs aims to offer easy-to-use technology. This is done by also using artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. “Ease of use is critical for the technology to be widely deployed, as not all companies are willing to train employees in microfluidics,” says Mozoļevskis.

Pharmaceutical Companies Are Only the First Stop

Organs-on-a-chip is a new industry. The first company started only ten years ago. Today, there are more than 20 companies in the field. There are only two players in Northern Europe: Cellbox Labs and Finnadvance from Finland. The industry is growing fast, but Mozoļevskis is not worried; there is room for everyone.

More and more pharmaceutical companies are adapting this technology. “Eventually, this technology will be used by all pharmaceutical companies and more. It will also be useful for manufacturers of food additives and pesticides. For example, the US plans to ban the use of animals in research by 2035 and Europe by 2050. The alternative is human organs-on-a-chip,” says Mozoļevskis.

Organs-on-a-chip can also help the space industry. When astronauts fly in space, they face various physiological challenges, such as digestive systems that do not work as well as they do on Earth. They need to take special probiotics. Organs-on-a-chip could help find the right combinations.

In time, this technology could also be used in personalised medicine. Mozoļevskis suggests that in the future, everyone will be able to have their organs chipped, stored in a special bank, and when the need for more serious treatment arises, the doctor will be able to check the chip and find the most appropriate drugs, rather than giving different drugs on a trial basis until there is a significant improvement in the patient’s health. It is difficult for him to say when this might happen, but it will certainly not be in the next three years. “In one of our ERDF projects, lung cancer patients have a tissue sample taken during surgery, from which personalised lung cancer chips are grown, where we study how to deliver drugs to cancer cells more efficiently,” says Mozoļevskis.

Source: labsoflatvia.com

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