Leading investors back game-changing human cell technology from University of Cambridge spin-out Elpis Biomed
Jonathan Milner, Darrin Disley, Weslie Janeway and Nikolaus Starzacher support Mark Kotter's work
A University of Cambridge spin-out that reprograms human cells has attracted heavyweight investment from biotech stars Jonathan Milner and Darrin Disley among others.
Elpis Biomed Ltd’s potentially game-changing technology is producing pure, mature and highly consistent batches of human cell types that can be used in research, toxicology and drug development.
The firm has now closed a funding round that will enable it to bring its products and services to the market.
Elpis, which is named after the Greek goddess of hope, has exclusively licensed intellectual property from the University of Cambridge that enables the ‘direct reprogramming’ of human stem cells into homogenous target cell populations at speed and with minimal variation between batches.
Standard approaches might create mature brain cells in 100-120 days. Elpis’ technology cuts this to 20.
Mark Kotter, scientific founder and CEO of Elpis, told the Cambridge Independent: “It’s a total step-change – a radical new concept. Other companies in the space are using differentiation, trying to coax stem cells into the cells they are interested in by exposing them to different media. This is often a very prolonged process. Our process is reprogramming. It’s a synthetic biology approach in which you change the cell type by rebooting the stem cell with a new programme.
“It entails getting genetic information into the cell. The cleanest way to do this is to use a gene editing approach because you then know exactly how many copies of the information you have inserted. We are using the precision of gene editing to make sure there is no effect on the cell. It’s a platform technology and more and more research shows it’s applicable to all cell types.
“Our purities are approaching 100 per cent and we get very little batch-to-batch variation.”
Elpis is already generating skeletal muscle cells and blood precursors, as well as types of brain cells, namely cortical neurons and glial cells, and hopes to have the first cells on sale in the first quarter of 2018.
Its work has attracted a top-tier international investment team, led by biotech A-lister Dr Milner, co-founder and deputy chairman of Cambridge-based protein and antibody firm Abcam, with co-investments from:
■ US-born philanthropist, venture capitalist and geneticist Weslie Janeway, who worked with Dr Kotter on neural cell repair at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and previously, with her husband Bill, donated £17.5 million to the Faculty of Economics at Cambridge; and
■ Nikolaus Starzacher, a serial entrepreneur with internet sales platform expertise who founded German smart metering firm Discovergy GmbH and utility comparison site Verivox.
Dr Kotter said: “We’ve opened up the capital markets in the US and Germany and are bringing in specific expertise in biotech from our UK investors, plus market platform and scaling-up experience.”
The amount raised in the over-subscribed funding round has not been disclosed but it is understood the money will help grow Elpis’ catalogue of off-the-shelf human cell type products and expand its offer, helping it towards developing more complex products, such as human organ-on-chip models and cell-based therapies, in partnership with other firms.
Dr Milner said: “I’m thrilled to be backing Mark Kotter and his team at Elpis BioMed.
“Elpis’ approach to making human cells is truly disruptive – it reduces manufacturing time and at the same time increases purity by an order of magnitude. But what is most important: it allows for unprecedented levels of consistency and minimal batch-to-batch variability.”
Human cells are increasingly important for researchers. The differences between human biology and commonly used cell and animal models can be the cause of the high failure – or ‘attrition’ – rates at the later stages of drug development.
But existing technology can create variable, immature cells with a different phenotype to mature cells in the body. Elpis’ ‘OPTi-OX’ (optimised, inducible over-expression) platform – developed at the university and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute – pledges to overcome these hurdles.
The company plans to expand its product line by offering human cells with distinct genetic backgrounds – from healthy and patient donors, for example, as well as bespoke cells with synthetic mutations or gene insertions to meet specific research requirements.
Dr Kotter concluded: “Elpis’ near-term goal is to allow every scientist to base their work on human cells, without the need of having particular expertise in stem cell biology. In the long term, we would like to develop our technology for clinical application.”
More by this authorPaul Brackley