UB Spinoff Cytocybernetics Brings 'Star Trek' Technology to Drug R&D

close-up of pills.

New drugs to treat heartburn, allergies, mental disorders and other maladies are constantly under development and years and millions in the making. UB spinoff Cytocybernetics has a biotechnology designed to shorten the time and money needed in bringing drugs to market.

Ensuring they do not have unwanted side effects on the heart is difficult; pharmaceutical companies may spend years and hundreds of millions dollars only to have a drug fail, often because it disrupts the electrical activity of the heart and causes heart attacks. That may soon change with Cytocybernetics and its new biotechnology - Cybercyte - possibly cutting in half the time and expenses of preclinical trials.

Launched in 2013 by UB researchers Glenna Bett and Randall Rasmusson, Cytocybernetics recently received:

  • A $241,933 Small Business Technology Transfer award from the National Institutes of Health.
  • A $50,000 award from the State University of New York’s Technology Accelerator Fund.

Each drug brought to market costs about $500 million in the preclinical trial phase. Cybercyte could cut up to two-thirds of the time and money – more than $300 million per drug and years off the timeline.

“Dr. Bett’s technique for testing drugs will improve methods for drug safety screening and reduce the cost and time associated with getting new medications to patients in need,” SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher said. “Congratulations to the University at Buffalo and Dr. Bett on this much-deserved national recognition and award for a potentially life-saving innovation.”

Until recently, researchers studying a compound’s effect on heart cells relied on limited molecular components or animal heart tissue, which is close to human heart tissue but different enough that potentially lethal problems may not be caught until clinical trials.

Technology now exists to create induced pluripotent stem cells – a relatively new type of stem cell made from genetically reprogrammed adult cells – by stripping human donor cells, typically skin, down to stem cell state. Then they are rebuilt as heart cells.

While effective, these cells lack an important electrical current, I, which promotes stability in heart muscle. Without it, the cells can spontaneously start beating. This can lead to false results during early-stage safety testing that in turn may lead to lengthy and expensive setbacks.

Cybercyte solves the problem by producing a synthetic I with electronics and computers connected to cells.

“It’s really Star Trek technology,” said Bett, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the UB Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “The electronics essentially become part of the cell and its function. By interacting with the cell during each beat, we can extract much more detailed and reliable information.”

Cybercyte also differentiates between types of muscle cells in the heart that respond differently to stimuli. That differentiation is something existing technology cannot do. Again, this means fewer false results to muddy the data.

Bett and Rasmusson, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, will use the grant money to test Cybercyte against current methods to prove its effectiveness to the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Cytocybernetics has received support from UB’s Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach and participated in the Pre-Seed Workshop hosted by UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.

The company has received funding from the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology, and has been accepted into START-UP NY, an innovative economic development program launched by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that connects universities with promising companies.

Under START-UP NY, Cytocybernetics is receiving tax incentives and will soon open a research facility in the Sherman Annex on UB’s South Campus. It plans to create internships and hire graduates from UB’s engineering, medicine, management and law programs.