MIT cell-engineering spinout nets $30M for mass manufacturing platform

One of the tricks of getting cell therapies to work is getting the payload you want into the cell itself—be it RNA, DNA or CRISPR proteins, that genetic information is necessary to bend the cell toward becoming a real therapeutic.

So far, that process of producing cells that remain healthy enough to eventually make a difference in a patient has been time-consuming and inefficient. Now, a spinout using methods from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is chasing a way to deliver ex vivo genetic engineering at speeds 10,000-times faster than current processes, and it’s raised $30 million to get its equipment into the hands of researchers.

Kytopen promises a scalable technology that combines the continuous flow of human cells in a fluid stream with the use of electric fields to loosen cell membranes and introduce genetic material to where it can do its work. The startup said it sees its Flowfect system being used to produce helpful cells for immuno-oncology treatments as well as other gene-editing research applications, all without the need for viral vectors.

Originally developed in the lab of Kytopen’s co-founder, MIT Professor Cullen Buie, the company said its Flowfect assembly line can produce 2 billion cells per minute through a single channel.

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Its oversubscribed series A round was led by Northpond Ventures, with additional backing from The Engine, Horizon Ventures, MassVentures and Alexandria Venture Investments, plus Aldevron co-founders Michael Chambers and John Ballantyne. The proceeds will be used to help commercialize its equipment and move the company toward treating the first patient with Flowfect-engineered cells.

“Cellular engineering is a vastly manual, time-consuming process. While the market demands acceleration and scale, a cell’s fragility requires that methods are also gentle from lab to clinic,” said Adam Wieschhaus, Ph.D., director at Northpond Ventures. 

The funding will also support an automated, high-throughput discovery platform using the same principles, designed for therapy development, target identification and optimization.

“We are actively executing on therapeutic and academic collaborations, and this funding and network will be the catalyst to accelerate our partners into the clinic and beyond,” said Kytopen co-founder and CEO Paulo Garcia, Ph.D. 

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Earlier this year, Kytopen scored a three-year grant of up to $2 million from the National Institutes of Health, to explore the use of its Flowfect system on the body’s natural killer cells, or NK cells. 

NK cells are a type of white blood cell, and this part of the immune system has remained largely untapped in cell therapy applications, according to Kytopen, because of difficulties in delivering genetic material.

NK cells are able to attack and destroy threats without antibodies, making them an ideal candidate for fighting certain infections, cancers and other diseases. However, these abilities also make the cells difficult to approach with a viral vector carrying a genetically engineered payload.

The small business research grant from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will be used to test Kytopen’s system for NK cell gene editing in both R&D settings and at scaled-up manufacturing rates for preclinical and clinical studies.