A global healthcare challenge is upon us. More than $2 billion and at least 10 years are spent in developing merely one new drug. But Boston-based Emulate Inc wants to accelerate this process and personalize medicines.
It has raised a a Series C funding of $36 million led by Founders’ Fund to change the two popular tools used in drug testing – cells in dishes and animals.
“Cells are happily functioning in our bodies,” says Geraldine Hamilton, the Chief Scientific Officer of Emulate. “We take them and rip them out of their native environment, throw them in one of these dishes, and expect them to work,” she says about the cell culture process where biologists grow cells under controlled conditions. “Guess what. They don’t.”
It’s not just the cells uprooted from their natural environment, thousands of animals are sacrificed even when animal models fail to accurately predict what will happen in humans when they’re treated with that particular drug. A 2008 study noted that in one year 115 million animals are used for scientific research alone. Additionally, clinical trials take years to complete and may not be representative of a whole population – comprising of children or people with a different genetic makeup. For these reasons, there is a long-felt need to expedite the process of drug development and move towards a personalized drug delivery method. While other startups are bringing wellness, Boston-based Emulate’s solution is organs-on-chips.
As companies explore newer approaches to test drugs, “the organs-on-chips” technology – where microchips are lined with human cells – is finding numerous takers. Emulate is pegging it as a human-centric system that looks past cells in a dish to predict how humans will respond to not only medication, but also food or chemicals.
This is how it works: The startup has used techniques from computer chip manufacturing industry to engineer microchips. These microchips have hollow microfluidic tubes and are lined with human cells. Air, nutrients, blood and infection-causing bacteria can be pumped through them to mimic how cells work in human bodies. The aim is to provide the right environment for cells to feel like they’re living inside the human body.
Hamilton explains the design of the chip: “there’s a porous flexible membrane in the center where human cells from, say, our lungs can be added. Underneath, capillary cells (cells in our blood vessels) can be added. Now mechanical forces can be applied to the chip that can stretch and contract it to mimic a human process such as breathing. Similarly, air flows through the top channel of the chip and a liquid flows at the bottom to mimic blood with nutrients.”
This means that together with the mechanical forces, the air, and the flow of blood – which brings in the nutrients and takes away the waste products – a micro-environment is created just like the cells have in the human body.
Simply put, the cells on the chips technology imitates the mechanics of how human organs work. Once ready, scientists or doctors can then stick them in microscopes to see what’s really happening inside the organs.
The Cell Architecture
Emulate has engineered a lot of functionality inside these little chips. For example, the cells could be used to mimic infection, where, Hamilton explains, “we add bacterial cells into the lung, then we can add human white blood cells” (for defense against bacterial infections). By doing that, Emulate’s scientists hope that the organs-on-chip will act like a window in the inner workings of human biology.
However, apart from the functionality, it’s the chip’s design that has been praised widely. So much so that the Museum of Modern Art added it to its permanent collection in 2015.
Emulate was founded in 2013 and received a $12 mn Series A funding led by Nano Dimension in July 2014. The startup has licensed the technology whose research began under the aegis of Dr Donald Ingber, a bioengineer and founding director of the Wyss Institute at the Harvard University. But it’s Geraldine Hamilton and CEO James Coon who are at the helm of the company’s commercial efforts.
Hamilton was in-charge of the multidisciplinary team responsible for developing, translating and commercializing the organs-on-chips technology at the Wyss Institute while Coon was the entrepreneur in residence. After the June Series C funding of $36 million, the company has reached a total valuation of $95 million.
Presently, Emulate is working on the organ chip for intestine, liver, lung, brain, among others to model different diseases such as neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, asthma, or inflammatory bowel diseases.
But the bigger idea is to create a breathing, living human-on-chip. “There’s fluid flowing across these cells, so we can begin to interconnect multiple different chips together to form what we call a virtual human on a chip,” Hamilton says. Once this is ready, the doctors will be able to learn from the human-on-chip technology what happens when a drug enters the human bloodstream.
For example, Riccardo Barrile, a principal investigator with Emulate and his team were able to detect the pro-thrombotic (blood clotting) side effect of a monoclonal antibody called Hu5c8 using one clinically relevant dose in combination with human blood samples in their blood vessel-chip. It is important to note that the life-threatening side effects of the antibody were not discovered during preclinical testing.
While the results have been admirable, scientists often struggle with finding large-scale applications. Emulate, however, believes it has found commercial applications. The startup claims that the chips can be used to understand not just how a certain drug affects the patient but also check, say, whether a skin product is fit to use or a certain chemical can be consumed. This means that it not only has the potential to completely stop animal testing, it gives rise to Emulate’s most important feature: personalization and customization in medicines.
The organs-on-chip technology is being explored worldwide to evaluate drug efficacies, with an aim to drastically better the efficiency and accuracy of drug testing. But in order to ensure that this human emulation system doesn’t remain a scientific fantasy, Emulate wants to approach it as a convergence of biology, engineering, and design. For example, the startup has collaborated with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to help it improve the process of drug development. It is also trying to achieve large-scale manufacturing of its chips so that millions of researchers can get their hands on them and benefit from (and contribute to) the technology.