Organ on a Chip (Image credit of Emulate)
Who will come up with the killer app for drug discovery, the thing that will make finding new medicines faster, cheaper, and less risky? No one has come close to figuring that out, but a group of venture investors are putting $45 million into a Harvard University spinout with organ-on-a-chip technology that it plans to roll out commercially next year.
Boston-based Emulate is announcing today it has tacked on another $17 million in venture financing, bringing its total Series B venture round to $45 million. The company, founded with a $12 million investment in July 2014, originally spun out of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.
The investor group includes Hansjörg Wyss, NanoDimension, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, OS Fund, Atel Ventures, ALS Finding a Cure, and Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings. Covance, a unit of LabCorp that runs many preclinical tests of experimental drugs under contracts with major drug companies, also said it is working to incorporate the Emulate technology in its range of services. The Covance deal, at first, will use an Emulate chip that’s supposed to simulate a human kidney.
The big idea is that “organs-on-a-chip” may someday provide a more reasonable lab simulator for drugmakers seeking to understand how their drug candidates work, and whether they’re safe, before they go into human clinical trials. Proponents in academic labs, and in a few small companies pushing the edge like Emulate, hope to develop microfluidic chips that better simulate the complex interplay among cells in live organisms, as well as the real-life biomechanical forces (like breathing in and out) that aren’t captured in the average petri dish, or animal test. The long-term payoff, organ-on-a-chip researchers hope, is a world where drug discovery is more predictable, and unsafe drug candidates are weeded out earlier in the process. Eventually, drugmakers and regulators like the FDA may be able reduce the need for certain kinds of animal testing.
Given that only about one in 10 drug candidates that enter human tests ultimately proves safe and effective enough to win an FDA approval to become a prescription medicine, existing models leave plenty of room for improvement. Worldwide pharmaceutical R&D totaled $141 billion in 2015,according to EvaluatePharma. Even a slight improvement in the efficiency of drug discovery could be worth billions to drugmakers.
“We’re at a tipping point of having of a product and putting into the hands of the researchers,” saidGeraldine Hamilton, Emulate’s president and chief scientific officer, in an interview.
So far, the organ-on-a-chip field has been long on aspiration and imagination, and limited in what it can actually do. Organs-on-a-chip haven’t made a dent in the average drug company’s workflow, and are probably years away from making an impact, at best. Hamilton says that’s partly because most of the work has been piecemeal on individual applications – a chip that simulates lung, kidney, or liver tissue, for example. Emulate’s idea is to put together a product offering that combines an instrument, replaceable chips for multiple organs, along with software to manage and interpret the data. All of it needs to be put into a simple and easy-to-use package for drug companies to buy, Hamilton says.
A few companies and academic labs are kicking the tires. Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Seres Therapeutics, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation have tested some of the early Emulate offerings. Next year, Emulate wants to cast a wider net and roll out its proprietary system with commercial customers. The company currently has 60 employees and plans to double in size over the coming year, Hamilton says.