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Spherical analysis

Travis Woods, left and Steven Graves use a cytometer at BennuBio in 2018. The Albuquerque startup has won a $1 million National Institutes of Health grant to further develop its cell-screening technology. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Medical device startup BennuBio Inc. won a $1 million National Institutes of Health grant to add rapid analysis capability for complex, three-dimensional cellular “spheroids” to its existing cell-screening technology.

BennuBio already developed a super-fast cytometer, or cell meter, that can process single-cell samples 100 times faster than other cytometers on the market today. Those instruments are used to rapidly analyze millions, and often billions, of cells for medical diagnostics and drug discovery.

But no cytometer today can process spheroids, which often include hundreds of cells that are clumped together in a spherical 3D shape because the particles are too big to easily flow through the instrument. That means researchers must generally analyze spheroids one at a time under a microscope, an agonizingly slow process that impedes rapid drug development and diagnostics, said BennuBio President and CEO Steven Graves.

That’s a problem, because spheroids offer insight into the interaction among cells, which can provide critical understanding of how diseases are impacting tissue and how potential drugs affect those interactions.

“Spheroids are often called ‘organoids,’ because they mimic organs, allowing researchers to look at more complex interactions among different cells rather than just analyzing a single cell,” Graves said. “Using static microscopy systems to analyze spheroids is very slow. You need a few thousand spheroid particles to compile good statistics, and for that you need a rapid system of analysis.”

To create that capability, the BennuBio team is creating new hardware and software to adjust the input system that channels tissue samples through the cytometer to allow hundreds, and potentially thousands, of spheroids per second to flow through the instrument for analysis, Graves said.

“We’ll tweak the input part of the system and improve the camera-based optical detection instruments to screen and analyze them,” Graves said. “It will deliver the spheroids to the flow-through cytometer with an automated pumping system to rapidly process them.”

The new capability will be sold alongside the existing cytometer as an add-on for customers that want spheroid-processing capability, said Chief Technical Officer James Freyer.

“(It) represents a significant technological advancement in pharmaceutical screening,” Freyer said. “It will be the first truly high throughput approach to the study of pharmaceutical interactions in a 3D tissue model.”

The team has worked on building the new capability for about seven months. With the new NIH grant, it expects to complete the project sometime next year.

Graves, Freyer and others originally developed BennuBio’s cytometer at the University of New Mexico Center for Biomedical Engineering. The company has begun commercial sales, but the coronavirus interrupted shipping to the first customers.

The company, which employs 15 at WESST Enterprise Center Downtown, has raised $7 million in private equity, including a $5 million investment last March led by Co-Win Ventures.

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