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Cyto-Mine recasts Sphere Fluidics as cell analysis leader

Dr Frank Craig, CEO of Sphere Fluidics, at The Meditrina Building Building, 260 Babraham Research Campus, Babraham. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Frank Craig, CEO of Sphere Fluidics, at The Meditrina Building Building, 260 Babraham Research Campus, Babraham. Picture: Keith Heppell

Babraham research firm has potential to slash drug discovery lead times

The Cyto-Mine cassette system which allows Sphere Fluidics to process samples so effectively. Picture: Keith Heppell
The Cyto-Mine cassette system which allows Sphere Fluidics to process samples so effectively. Picture: Keith Heppell

Sphere Fluidics was recently selected as a finalist in the Red Herring Top 100 Europe awards, a prestigious nomination which reflects the firm’s phenomenal success with its Cyto-Mine Single Cell Analysis System.

The Cyto-Mine, which the Babraham Research Campus-based firm has developed and manufactures, is underpinned by the firm’s picodroplet technology, which integrates selective screening of tens of millions of single cells – including sorting, isolation and clone verification – into a single automated platform.

This speeds up workflows, lowers costs, improves throughput and “enables high-value clones to be captured in a single run”.

Founded as a life sciences company in 2010, Sphere Fluidics spun out of the university. It currently has 25 products on sale, mainly biochips and specialist chemicals. Before Cyto-Mine, revenue came largely from selling novel biochip systems and providing R&D services.

Today, it’s a very different story as Sphere Fluidics’ proprietary picodroplet technology enables the Cyto-Mine, a pioneering single cell analysis and monoclonality assurance system for biotherapeutic discovery and development.

CEO Dr Frank Craig said: “We do do some research services but we’re transitioning from a services business to a manufacturing business, which is why we’re experiencing such rapid growth. Within two years 90 per cent of revenue is from product growth not services – two years ago 90 per cent of our revenue was from services.

“It was a strategic decision to move to products as the revenue is greater. We sell 200 machines and that’s OK, but 200 clients needing services is more complicated.”

Distributor arrangments with Japan, China, Korea, Germany, France, Scandanavia and Australia suggest this rapid commercialisation process has proved successful. A sales office in Princeton, in the US, is due to open in the next few months.

The Cyto-Mine, which took 30 scientists and engineers three years and £10million to develop, retails for £350,000. Compared with rivals, says Dr Craig, “performance and cost benefits are markedly superior even if the outlay is the same”.

So how does it work? Let’s look at just one application: antibiotic-resistance testing. Since penicillin was discovered in 1928 antibiotics usage has been so significant it has stimulated bacteria to acquire resistance mechanisms. So research is aimed at diagnosing antibiotic resistance, a process which then generated a new class of antibiotics. Accurate, rapid and affordable testing can result in targeted antibiotics which would help prevent the growth of drug-resistant strains.

“Finding bacteria that have evolved a resistance mechanism is comparable to panning for gold,” says Sphere on its website. Agitating gravel in a pan separates out the gold, and similarly “adding an antibiotic to a colony of bacteria selects those rare microorganisms that have evolved a resistance mechanism”.

Cyto-Mine can analyse single cells in channels with dimensions of tens of micrometers, which allows biopharma research institutes to speed up their biological analysis. You probably don’t need me to tell you research is a numbers game, so let the data speak for itself. The Cyto-Mine can encapsulate 100,000 single cells or up to 10 million cells in pools, and it dispenses the cells of interest to you into the individual wells of a 96- or 384-well microplate.

It screens up to 1,000 times more cells than by colony picking. Screening huge numbers without compromising on quality is now possible. It’s a whole new chapter because Sphere Fluidic’s picodroplet technology takes an industrialised approach to analysing these single cells or “a few hundred picoliters of fluid containing the molecules of interest”.

The cell samples are loaded into the Cyto-Mine. Cyto-Mine is set up to perform the test you want. Afterwards the user collects the plates of high-value cells and reviews the data using the firm’s Cyto-Mine Studio.

“The trick is that Cyto-Mine can do 40 million tests per day,” says Dr Craig. “This is the equivalent of 100,000 conventional microplates routinely used in labs – these could likely fill one or more London double decker buses. The consumable cost savings are at least 14-fold but the environmental benefits a lot more.”

Dr Craig was “a recognised entrepreneur in the drug discovery domain” when he was approached by Cambridge Enterprise “to review the nascent technology – and that became Sphere Fluidics”.

The firm has now raised £11million for development and is part of Cambridge Innovation Capital’s investment portfolio.

“The first two years we were small so we kept costs low and lived in a space in the university until 2013,” says Dr Craig.“Then we got our own premises, and moved to Babraham, took on more space and began expanding. We’re income-generating – we have 25 products on sale. We could be profitable by next year.”

Sphere Fluidics didn’t win the Red Herring award for Europe’s most innovative company – the top spot went to French firm iExec for its blockchain-based decentralised cloud marketplace – but with the arrival of the Cyto-Mine the bigger prize of reducing the timeline for drug discovery pipelines is now closer.

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