Putting Personalized Medicine in Orbit

Modern health care is in a constant race to develop the best drug in the shortest amount of time for the lowest price. One of the ongoing challenges faced by drug developers is determining how a particular drug will react in the human bloodstream. And because every human body reacts differently to a particular drug, determining the right medication for each patient’s diagnosis can be a perpetual guessing game for health care providers. 

But a Huntsville company’s innovative development may be a key to solving some of these issues and achieving the promise of precision medicine, an emerging approach to disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment and lifestyle. 

SynVivo, developed by Huntsville-based CFD Research Corp., is a microchip platform that recreates a human cell environment that allows the real-time study of cellular behavior and drug delivery. 

Richard Piazza, president and CEO of SynVivo, compares the company’s microchip approach to viewing cells to a person looking at a club sandwich. “Looking down at it, you can’t tell what’s inside, but when you look sideways, you can see everything that’s in the sandwich, ” he says. “That’s the way it is viewing cells with SynVivo chips. Visualization is the key to drug development and delivery; you have to be able to see where the drug is going and how it’s reacting with the blood and the tissue.” 

Two years ago, SynVivo was selected by The Scientist as one of the top 10 innovations of 2013. Since then, researchers have further refined the product and developed a new generation of the chip, which can capture multiple types of cells, says Kapil Pant, Ph.D., vice president of biomedical and energy technologies at CFDRC and COO of SynVivo. In May 2015, SynVivo spun out from CFDRC as its own company, with its parent company retaining an ownership share. 

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Prepping for Personalized Medicine

SynVivo recreates the complex “in vivo” environment, or the environment of a living body, in an “in vitro, ” or glass, environment. The recreation is true to scale, morphology, fluidics and cellular interactions to enable basic and applied life sciences research. SynVivo microchips are being actively used in pharmaceutical, biotech, clinical and academic labs around the world for applications in inflammation, oncology, neurology and toxicology.

While SynVivo chips can be applied for a variety of uses, the company is first focusing on the value they can bring to treating cancer patients. “There is a tremendous need in cancer to determine what drugs a person needs, and doctors can easily choose the wrong medicine because all people respond differently to drugs, ” Piazza says. “When you hear someone say their cancer didn’t respond to the chemo, that really means the wrong drug was chosen for them. When you choose the wrong drug, a patient loses valuable time in treatment.” 

The newly spun-off company is currently raising capital to fund a pilot study in six leading cancer centers across the country. Participating providers will be able to take a patient’s cells from his or her biopsy, populate the SynVivo chip with that data, and within a few days, see how that patient’s cancer will respond to various drugs. Not only can the chip show how different drug combinations will react with the cancer cells, but also how they will react in the bloodstream. The chip also can show how aggressive the cancer is, which helps practitioners determine accurate dosing. 

Piazza expects that SynVivo will be used as a clinical tool within the next four years. The chips require standard lab equipment, so for very little investment, technicians will be able to create chips on site to test in any fashion they require. Because the testing can be done so quickly, it doesn’t stall the treatment, Pant says. And using SynVivo to determine the proper medication for a particular patient and his or her particular disease costs a fraction of traditional treatment costs — as little as 2 percent of the cost of high-end chemotherapy.

SynVivo’s ability to provide rapid answers to the questions of how a specific patient’s cells will respond to specific drugs makes it an ideal tool for the growing approach of precision medicine. “Everyone benefits; there are better outcomes for patients and lower costs for hospitals and third-party payers, ” Piazza says.

Building on a solid foundation

While SynVivo has made strides recently in the biotech field, it is simply one of the latest discoveries in a long line of innovations developed at CFDRC. Launched in 1987 as an aerospace research company, the firm gradually branched into automotive, energy and biomedical research. During the late 1990s, the firm’s biomedical and life sciences work expanded significantly and it eventually leased laboratory space at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. 

“Early on, one of our differentiators was that we were multidisciplinary, ” says Pant. “In the early ’90s, when semiconductors were very hot, we branched out early on, and many of our developments are still being used around the world. When biomedical and biotech came along, we moved in that direction. We’ve always tried to be on the leading edge.” 

In 2013, CFDRC moved all its divisions into one building adjacent to the HudsonAlpha Institute, with plenty of its own lab space. Today, the company employs about 100 people, with more than half educated at the doctoral level. And interesting innovations are commonplace.

For instance, the firm’s BioBattery converts sugar into electrical energy. That means a soldier deployed in Afghanistan could use the sugar in a bottle of Gatorade or Coke to power his cell phone or GPS tracking device. And rather than having surgery every 10 years to replace the battery in his pacemaker, a heart patient’s pacemaker battery could be regularly recharged using the sugars in his own blood.

Creating in good company 

CFDRC was originally founded in Huntsville because of the area’s ties to the space program. NASA recruited one of the founders, Ashok Singhal, an expert on airflow, after the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. His first assignment — studying alternatives to the O-rings that failed and caused the disaster. 

Although the company has grown far beyond its aerospace roots, leaders say Alabama, and Huntsville specifically, is an ideal location for their work. “Alabama is a focus of the aerospace industry, and as the company has expanded, having biomedical resources like HudsonAlpha here has offered big leverage for us, ” Pant says.

“The business climate is great in Huntsville and in Alabama, ” adds Joseph Cosumano, who is CEO of CFDRC. “That’s why you see so many businesses moving here. The workforce is educated and available, and great things are happening here.” 

Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.

Text by Nancy Mann Jackson • Photos by Dennis Keim

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