Health & Tech is a regular feature highlighting life sciences and high-tech companies throughout the region.
Company name: Cytocybernetics
Address: 120 Sherman Annex, on the University at Buffalo South Campus, and a second location in North Tonawanda
Year founded: 2014
Founders: Glenna Bett and Randall Rasmusson
Description: The company has developed a technology that its founders say can cut the time and money needed to bring new drugs to market. The company’s test can find out whether a drug candidate causes cardiac arrhythmia as a side effect.
Number of employees: four
Financing raised to date: $1 million
Lowdown: Cytocybernetics is trying to grab a share of the billion-dollar cardiac-safety testing market. Companies that are developing new drugs must prove to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the drug won’t cause abnormal heart rhythms, which can be fatal. Drug-induced cardiac arrhythmias are a leading reason why drugs are withdrawn – either during development or, in rare cases, from the marketplace after they’ve already won approval from regulators.
The standard methods of screening used now are poor predictors of whether a drug will cause cardiac arrhythmia, said Rasmusson, the company’s president and a professor of physiology and biophysics at UB. That’s because they use just one protein, out of the hundreds of proteins within the heart cell, or they rely on animal tissue. The standard screening is only 70 percent reliable, meaning the cardiac risks
won’t fully be known until clinical trials with human patients, he said.
Cytocybernetics’ testing uses technology, developed elsewhere and commercially available, that takes DNA from a donated human skin cell, puts it into a cocktail of chemicals and induces it to become a stem cell, Bett said. The stem cell then is rebuilt as something very close to a heart cell, “which is way cool,” said Bett, the company’s CEO and vice chair for research in UB’s department of obstetrics and gynecology.
But there’s something missing, an electrical current, and that’s where Bett’s and Rasmusson’s innovation comes into play.
“It’s a bit like ‘Iron Man,’” Bett said. “This is where we do the Tony Stark bit.”
They developed a way to use computers, and mathematical modeling, to act as though they are a real-time component of their heart cell, enabling incredibly fast communication between the computer and the cell.
“We can fake the cell out and we can make them think that missing component, that missing electrical component, is actually there. And it functions like a real heart cell,” Bett said.
Now, the company can use the technology, known as a Cybercyte, to start doing vigorous testing of the cardiac safety of drug candidates during the early stages of their development, Rasmusson said.
This saves time and money for each drug in development, a process that can cost $1 billion or more on average, he said.
Their testing method doesn’t require FDA approval, Bett said. However, it has to be validated, and the company is in the process of doing so.
The company is poised for growth. Founded in 2014 in a North Tonawanda garage and apartment owned by Rasmusson, Cytocybernetics was accepted into the state’s Start-Up NY tax-free-zone program in April 2015.
It received a major boost in summer 2015, when it earned a $242,000 award from the National Institutes of Health, and another last October when it was named one of the $500,000 winners in the 43North business-plan competition. Bett and Rasmusson are waiting to hear later this summer about whether they will receive a second, larger small business award from the NIH.
The company has a two-pronged business model. It sells its software and hardware to academic institutions, research organizations and pharmaceutical companies that are doing their own research and development – the package has a list price of $45,000, but Cytocybernetics has strategic partnerships with its customers. And the company has set up a contract research organization in a laboratory in the Sherman Annex on the UB South Campus to offer screening and other research services using the Cybercytes on behalf of clients.