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Tackling Unmet Drug Screening Needs

Schematic representation of SemaCyte microcarriers including optical barcodes.
Credit: Semarion
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Read time: 4 minutes

Drug discovery can be a long and expensive process, spanning up to 10–15 years and costing over $1–2 billion. Addressing bottlenecks at each stage is key to reducing costs and timelines.

Semarion, a University of Cambridge spin-out company from the Cavendish Laboratory, is working to accelerate the pace of early-stage drug discovery by revolutionizing in vitro research on cell models. As an expansion on its SemaCyte Microcarrier Platform, Semarion recently introduced the SemaCyte Multiplexing Platform, which enables in situ multiplexing of adherent cells.

Technology Networks had the pleasure of speaking with Jeroen Verheyen, Semarion’s co-founder and CEO, at ELRIG’s Research and Innovation 2024 event, to learn more about the company, its SemaCyte technology and how it can help to address unmet drug screening needs.

Molly Campbell (MC): Semarion is combining materials engineering and cell biology to tackle unmet drug screening needs. Can you talk about what these needs are?

Jeroen Verheyen (JV): We're revolutionizing early-stage drug discovery by enhancing adherent cell assays for higher throughput. Typically, drug discovery relies on adherent cells to assess various factors like toxicity, mechanism of action, efficacy and drug uptake into specific cell types. However, this process is often slow and labor-intensive. Researchers must cultivate large quantities of cells, detach them from growth plates using trypsinization, transfer them to assay plates and wait for them to reattach before drug testing can begin. These steps significantly delay the drug discovery process, with the industry spending roughly $10 billion annually on adherent cell assays.

At Semarion, we're streamlining this process. The primary challenge with adherent cells is their need to adhere to surfaces, limiting their manipulation with automation tools and reducing both throughput and flexibility. Our solution, the SemaCyte platform, overcomes these limitations. SemaCytes are advanced microcarriers which function as ultra-miniaturized, mobile, and barcoded wells which carry small colonies of adherent cells. They have a flat growth area, cell-repellent walls and QR-code-like optical barcodes. Moreover, we've integrated quantum magnetism, smart materials and advanced surface chemistry to enable seamlessly integrate of our solution into standard microplate workflows which are used across drug discovery.

With SemaCytes, researchers can prepare cells that can be cryopreserved in vials, eliminating lengthy preparation times. They can also miniaturize assays and reduce the number of cells required, saving both money and resources. Additionally, researchers can multiplex cells to study multiple cell types simultaneously, significantly increasing throughput. In essence, we're accelerating early-stage drug discovery, enabling researchers to generate high-quality cell-based data more rapidly.

MC: Can you talk about Semarion’s products, and how they are helping to tackle unmet needs in drug screening, including the SemaCyte® Multiplexing Platform? Are you able to share specific customer examples/ case studies?

JV: We offer SemaCyte microcarriers attached to the bottom of standard cell culture dishes, such as petri dishes or flasks. Biologists can apply their cells using standard culturing techniques. Once the cells have adhered and developed the desired characteristics, the plates can be agitated, causing the microcarriers loaded with cells to detach and enter into solution. At this point, fully adherent cells can be either frozen in batches in cryovials or dispensed into microplates for highly miniaturized plate reader or microscopy assays. This is particularly advantageous during the lead optimization phase of drug discovery, driving faster feedback on newly synthesized compounds.

Our latest innovation is the multiplexing version of SemaCyte microcarriers. These microcarriers are equipped with optical barcodes, allowing researchers to combine different cell types from various tissues or cell lines into a single well of microplates. This innovation significantly accelerates the screening of multiple cell types. We've observed significant interest from end users in utilizing our cell multiplexing solution for target discovery, compound profiling and biomarker discovery.

For instance, we've initiated a collaboration with the Milner Therapeutics Institute who are conducting arrayed CRISPR screens on multiple cell types, including those from patient donors. Traditionally, if they wanted to screen 10 different tissues, they’d have to acquire 10 CRISPR libraries and conduct each screen separately. However, by multiplexing the 10 different cell types using our platform, they can perform the screen once and it only requires one CRISPR library. Multiplexing 10 cell types together can result in a remarkable 10-fold time saving and a 6-fold cost saving.

Similarly, in compound profiling or biomarker discovery, researchers often need to examine tens or hundreds of different cell lines or patient samples to identify efficacy across diverse populations. Multiplexing cell types can significantly expedite the data generation process, allowing for faster insights and discoveries.

MC: Can you discuss the importance of efficiency and cost-saving initiatives for drug development companies?

JV:  The importance depends on who you are talking to in the pharma or drug discovery world. From the standpoint of CROs, which receive numerous projects from pharma and biotech companies, efficiency and cost-effectiveness are paramount. The ability to deliver projects swiftly and affordably enhances their competitiveness in the market. CROs frequently receive new drug compound from their clients on an ad hoc basis. The time it takes to prepare cells to conduct the bioassays leads to significant delays. The quicker the CRO can deliver meaningful biological insights, for example, by using our solution, the happier their client is.

For pharma companies, the focus is primarily on reducing the time required to progress from identifying novel targets to developing clinically viable drug compounds. Typically, the in vitro drug discovery phase spans around five years. However, accelerating the pace of cell assays, a key bottleneck in this process, has the potential to compress this timeline to four or even three years. This acceleration not only improves the return on investment by reducing research costs, but also helps to get better drugs into the clinic faster.

Jeroen Verheyen was speaking to Molly Campbell, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee:

Jeroen drives the strategic deployment of Semarion’s cell assaying solutions across drug discovery through product commercialisation and partnering. Previously, he developed cell model for neuro-inflammation and worked with drug-delivery systems, RNAi and stem cell therapeutics.