It was a delight to see Cambridge Science Park quietly humming again on a visit to the organ-on-a-chip (OOC) company CN Bio Innovations.
It was my first visit since the PhysioMimix multi-organ system was launched last year. Now, for the first time on this desktop product range, users can recreate single human organs and tissues such as the gut and liver in the laboratory, and connect them together to replicate multi-organ processes.
This spells progress with a capital ‘P’. It means users can now “study organ-organ crosstalk for predicting drug toxicity or bioavailability and model inflammatory disease processes”.
The bioengineering company assembles PhysioMimix OOC single and multi-organ systems on the Park, and it was great to look around the labs and say hello to the team, including marketing manager Sarah Payne, and operations and marketing assistant Luisa Smith. I couldn’t help but notice, in the foyer, the Cambridge Independent‘s Science & Technology Award for Life Sciences Company of the Year 2022.
“It was a super award for the company, especially among a very, very packed field,” notes CEO David Hughes as seats are taken in the conference room.
Things have clearly evolved since CN Bio moved on to the Park in 2020.
“In Cambridge we have developed a broad sense of the kind of technology we make,” David says. “With OOC, the world has woken up to the potential of the technology to improve the efficiency of drug discovery and at CN Bio we like to think we have played our part.
“On a commercial level, PhysioMimix became available in 2018 as a one-organ system, and we have since launched a new product with multi-organ capabilities in March 2021 – it’s the first truly commercial product that puts this capability into the hands of the pharmaceutical companies.
“The technology that went into this originates from the $26m DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) study with the laboratory of Prof Linda Griffith at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Department of Biological Engineering. CN Bio was a collaborator on that research program, and we subsequently commercialized the multi-organ patents. The reason this is so significant is because animal models offer that interconnection and that has proven very difficult to replicate, and now it can be done in a way that’s good enough to reduce the number of animal experiments.”
Related to this, CN Bio has recently shown its support for the FDA Modernization Act, which it describes as “a giant step towards a world without animal testing”. Once passed, this will allow researchers to use the most appropriate models for their studies rather than forcing the use of animals in all instances.
“PhysioMimix is being used by a number of the world’s top 20 pharma companies,” says David. “Roche recently published their experience using the multi-organ system: there’s been other publications with AstraZeneca, Sanofi, and Charles River. Companies tend to purchase multiple systems each dedicated to a different application and mirror this across multiple sites.
“Originally, we sold the system and consumables, however, one of CN Bio’s innovations in 2022 was to extend our portfolio to include primary human cells validated to work in 3D, reagents and assay protocols… By providing solutions, we help our customer base to easily adopt OOC into their working routine.”
Early success included trials of our liver-on-a-chip by the US by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), David adds. “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the FDA, who uses our PhysioMimix systems to try and work out if OOC offers advantages over existing approaches and where OOC fits into the regulatory pathway. The FDA wants to understand and interpret the data that comes out of these systems, and we want to help them achieve this.
“Our work with the FDA is a big piece of what we do. Their evaluation of our liver-on-a-chip model culminated in a publication in 2021 – we were proud to be the first OOC vendor to publish with a regulator. Now, they’re conducting multi-organ studies – first with the gut and liver, and then lung and liver.
“The liver is crucial because it is involved in so many processes: it metabolizes drugs and is often the site of drug-induced toxicity.
“Traditionally it is very hard to culture liver cells in a lab and accurately recapitulate their behavior in the body. When you add CN Bio into the equation, we get much closer! In our systems, we combine human liver cells together in the right combinations and culture them in 3D, perfused by fluidic flow to mimic the bloodstream. In their hands, the FDA proved that our liver-on-a-chip approach outperforms current traditional models.”
Going forward into 2023, more work will be done at CN Bio to develop disease models using the liver – and the gut.
“The gut is largely anaerobic,” explains David, who joined CN Bio as an engineer in 2010 and became CTO before assuming the CEO role in 2018. “That means there’s very little oxygen there. There’s a shortage of available systems to study these anaerobic bacteria in the lab, so our aim is to develop a physiologically relevant environment to test these anaerobic cells. This will require some additional hardware to be developed on top of our existing technology backbone.”
David was employee number four when he joined in 2010: today it’s a team of 45, mainly in the UK, with a commercial team in the US. The company began in Oxford, spun out of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, then spent five years on the BioPark at Welwyn Garden City before moving to Cambridge Science Park in 2020, by which time David had been CEO for two years.
“For the first couple of years Covid intervened in its various forms,” he remarks of CN Bio’s arrival in Cambridge, “so it’s only really since the start of 2022 that we’ve been able to use this facility as we wanted to. It’s a great ecosystem in Cambridge for this type of work.”
Quite a challenge for a relatively new CEO?
“It’s been a real learning curve being CEO,” David responds engagingly. “I feel I’ve learned a tremendous amount of new skills – fundraising, business strategy, shareholder managing… it’s a challenging role and you’ve got to try and enjoy that challenge. It’s also terrifically rewarding to see a business grow, and most importantly to see the team grow.”
The emergence of hybrid working has proven an attractive option in the uber-competitive Cambridge technology and life sciences sector.
“The hybrid model works really well for CN Bio. Some things people can do at home. We employ great, highly-skilled professionals and we trust them to organize themselves in the most efficient way. Obviously, for our development scientists, our contract research services team and our production team, they work predominantly on site. While the components for the PhysioMimix are outsourced, we prefer the crucial assembly and testing processes to remain under CN Bio control in Cambridge.
“This is a very novel and disruptive product and we want the quality and manufacturing to be as high as possible and that means doing it here.
“Cambridge is definitely on the up, in life sciences it really is – there’s no better place to be.
“The real thing that we’ve seen in the last two and a half years is that we’ve moved from a newly-launched product to an expanded range of products and services and we’re starting to see its widespread adoption in the pharma industry.”
We’ll be reporting on other developments on Cambridge Science Park in these pages soon.