Flow cytometry, which sorts individual cells in a blood sample, used to require large and expensive laboratory equipment with a dedicated operator. NanoCellect Biomedical Inc., founded in 2009 by a team of UC San Diego scientists, has developed a more compact, safer, and less expensive flow cytometry device that is designed for lab research but shows great promise for point-of-care application.
Based on “lab-on-a-chip” research spearheaded by Yu-Hwa Lo, PhD, Director of the Jacobs School of Engineering’s Nano3 Facility (Nanoscience, Nanoengineering, and Nanomedicine), the technology has been further developed by Jose Morachis, PhD, and his engineering team led by NanoCellect CTO and fellow UC San Diego alumnus Sung Hwan Cho, PhD. A prototype has successfully completed beta testing, and the product is expected to go on sale in 2015 to early adopters.
“Two disciplines, biology and engineering, joined together to make this work,” explained Morachis, NanoCellect’s President and CEO. Morachis began his entrepreneurial career as a grad student when he and two UCSD student colleagues, Will Alaynick and Nate Heintzman, founded ScholarNexus, an accelerator of biotech inventions from academic and research organizations. A ScholarNexus partner who knew Lo urged Morachis to check out his work.
“He saw Professor Lo’s technology for tiny plumbing that you could use to sort cells,” said Morachis, “and he thought it was cool.” When the two met, “we had great chemistry,” he recalled. “That can be the most important thing: how you interact and communicate with your partners.”
Morachis knew from his own postdoctoral research at the Salk Institute that flow cytometry equipment was cumbersome, and wait times were long. “The instruments are large and very complicated to use,” he said, “and they cost a half-million to purchase.” Lo’s innovation, now NanoCellect’s technology, used microfluidics to downsize the sorting system to reduce size, cost (estimated at $100,000), and complexity.
“The old technology was like the original Xerox printer,” said Morachis, “and our new technology is like the portable desktop printer that can do 80 to 90 percent of what the Xerox printer does.”
NanoCellect’s next-generation cell sorter also is gentler on cells than traditional machines, which can damage them as they flow through the collection tube. “With our technology, said Morachis, “it’s more of a slide. It’s like the difference between sliding into a pool and diving into a pool.” Eventually, devices like these are expected to be available to clinics to isolate specific patient cells for diagnostic applications.
Lo is now on NanoCellect’s Strategic and Advisory Board, which also includes serial entrepreneur and Illumina co-founder Larry Bock. NanoCellect’s original funding came from a series of NIH SBIR Phase I and II awards. The company, which now has seven full-time employees, recently launched its first Series A campaign for venture capital.
NanoCellect is focusing on the research market, but Morachis thinks the firm eventually will move into the diagnostic arena. “I studied cancer biology, and our technology has a lot of potential for that field,” he said. “With a cancer patient, you take a biopsy of blood to identify circulating tumor cells. If the cancer starts becoming metastatic, it will release small amounts of cells throughout the body. With our technology, we can isolate those specific cells and ask, ‘What kind of cancer does this patient have?’”
For aspiring entrepreneurs, Morachis said protecting your intellectual property (IP) is key. “If you publish and don’t get patent protection, you’re at risk, because whoever files first gets the patent. The Tech Transfer Office at UCSD can answer questions like, ‘How do we license this?’ They’ve got your back.”
NanoCellect Biomedical, Inc.
6404 Nancy Ridge Drive, San Diego, CA 92121
Tel: (951) 966-4963
Fax: (858) 356-5965
José Morachis, PhD – CEO
Sung Hwan Cho, PhD – Chief Technical Officer
Yu-Hwa Lo, PhD – Co-Founder, Scientific Collaborator
SBIR Phase I funding from the NIH’s National Center for Research Resources (NCRR)
Yu-Hwa Lo, PhD
Electrical and Computer Engineering
Jacobs School of Engineering