Published January 18, 2018
UB spinoff Cytocybernetics has been awarded $1.5 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop an enhanced version of the Cybercyte — the company’s device that integrates electronics with heart muscle cells to test how new drugs affect the heart’s electrical activity.
Such screenings could save pharmaceutical companies hundreds of millions of dollars by enabling early identification of compounds that cause serious, potentially fatal side effects.
“The number of drugs that can interfere with the function of the heart is astounding,” says Cytocybernetics CEO Glenna Bett, associate professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Our system tests all kinds of pharmaceuticals, from allergy medications to antidepressants, for unwanted side effects such as heart attacks or arrhythmia.
“Drug discovery is an expensive process,” Bett adds. “By getting drugs that aren’t viable out of the pipeline quickly, you can save millions of dollars. As they say, if you’re going to fail, fail fast.”
Bett co-founded Cytocybernetics with Randall Rasmusson, professor of physiology and biophysics in the Jacobs School. The company is headquartered at UB and has nine employees, including the founders.
The new NIH funding — a Phase II Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute — will enable the startup to hire more scientists and develop a high throughput version of its technology that can run numerous tests in quick succession.
“Technological innovation has the potential to improve all facets of our lives — everything from our health and well-being to the creation of new industries, companies and jobs,” says SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson. “Cytocybernetics is well on its way to positively impact cardiac research, and that is validated by the team receiving the highly competitive STTR award to advance their product development and commercialization efforts.
“I extend my sincerest congratulations to Cytocybernetics and the University at Buffalo.”
Venu Govindaraju, UB vice president for research and economic development, says the work Bett and Rasmusson “exemplifies how university research benefits society.”
“Cytocybernetics’ innovations have the potential to greatly improve the drug-discovery process. The company is also creating jobs in Western New York, contributing to the region’s economic development,” Govindaraju notes. “Cytocybernetics exemplifies how the university is working to commercialize UB technologies, driving growth and helping to transform the region into a national health sciences hub.”
The Cybercyte — Cytocybernetics’ core technology — uses mathematical modeling and high-speed computer interfaces to deliver an electric current that flows through heart cells grown in the lab. This setup accurately models the electrical activity of heart cells within the human body, enabling scientists to test how different drugs influence the function of the cells and, ultimately, the heart.
It’s a futuristic technology that blends electronics with biology, reminiscent of Star Trek’s cybernetic Borg. As the Cybercyte interacts with cells, it feeds researchers real-time data showing how the cells are behaving.
The company’s technology solves some key problems that scientists encounter when evaluating the cardiac safety of new pharmaceuticals.
First, the Cybercyte is linked to heart-muscle cells grown in the lab. This means the team can investigate how drugs act on whole cells, as opposed to on single proteins within a cell, as researchers did in previous years. Second, the Cybercyte infuses the lab-grown heart-muscle cells with a synthetic version of IK1, an electric current that helps regulate the heart’s electrical activity and beat. Without this current, screenings can produce false results — an expensive headache for pharmaceutical firms.
Cytocybernetics will use the NIH funding to scale up the company’s technology. The goal is to create a variant of the Cybercyte that is compatible with robotic systems that can perform screenings rapidly.
“Repetition is very important in science because you need to make sure your results are reliable,” Bett explains. “With high throughput screening, we would we able to conduct multiple tests more quickly.”
Cytocybernetics sells the Cybercyte and also provides screening and analysis for clients that have included drug developers, academic researchers and biotechnology firms.
Bett credits Buffalo’s tight-knit startup community — including UB — for fueling her company’s growth. Cytocybernetics previously won $500,000 in the 43North business idea competition, and received funding through the SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF) and UB Center for Advanced Technology in Big Data and Health Sciences.
“Technologies stemmed from university research stimulate economic growth. We are pleased to have awarded a TAF investment to help Drs. Bett and Rasmusson prepare the Cybercyte for commercial production and verify its value in drug safety screening, positioning the company to apply for STTR funding,” says Grace Wang, SUNY interim provost and vice chancellor for research and economic development.
The new NIH award and development of high throughput screening will build on the company’s prior successes, allowing Cytocybernetics to expand its customer base.
“Every time we go to a trade show, we are surprised by a new segment of the market that comes forward with interest in our products and services,” Bett says. “High throughput screening would allow us to reach an even broader array of clients.”