Elpis Biomed is a University of Cambridge spin-out using its proprietary OPTi-OX platform to develop human cells for research, toxicity, and drug development. The company this year was voted the 2018 Cambridge Start-Up of the Year.
The Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards are sponsored by AstraZeneca/MedImmune, BioStrata, Cambridge Precision, among others. Last year’s award recipient, STORM Therapeutics, has since raised £4m ($5m) in funding.
Direct cellular reprogramming
Elpis cells are generated through a process called “direct cellular reprogramming,” Mark Kotter, MD, PhD, founder and director of Elpis BioMed, explained.
The method works to directly convert human induced stem cells (iSCs) to the desired cell type, instead of recapitulating development. Kotter said the Elpis’ technology is able to complete this process in less than a week, and at purities approaching 100%.
Kotter explained, “Cells are ‘reprogrammed’ by switching on the program that defines a particular cell type,” such as a neuron, or a muscle cell.
“This program is encoded in ‘transcription factors,’ proteins that bind to regions of the DNA which are able to turn on and turn off particular genes. In order to generate a particular cell type, one needs to know the transcription factor combination that defines a particular cell type,” he told us.
Elpis works with several academic groups to develop some of the “cell reprogramming” protocols, Ketter explained. Using a combination of a bioinformatics prediction and high throughput screening paradigms, other protocols are developed in-house.
The company is currently in the middle of a funding round, and soon will be announcing “important strategic partnerships,” which Ketter said will enable Elpis “to scale into a global provider of high-quality human cells.”
Elpis previously completed a funding round to commercialize the technology in November 2017.
Integrating human biology early in the drug discovery process
It is well documented that drug development costs have grown exponentially, “with investments reaching negative rates of return,” said Ketter.
The main reason for failure in the clinic is species differences: “Drugs that work in animals do not work humans or drugs that animals tolerate are toxic in the human context,” he added, though drug discovery is currently largely based on the use of animal models and cell lines.
Ketter said, “The obvious solution is to integrate human biology early into the drug discovery process.”
Yet, current human model systems are not consistent enough to be used for screening, he said. Conversely, Elpis provides “pure cultures of human cells, which are robust enough and can be used for high throughput screening.”
“I think that robust human cell systems, also in the form of organoids, will become more and more important,” Ketter said – though it will still take “some time” to replace animal experiments fully.