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Building better models of organs
LAUSANNE, Switzerland—Swiss biomedical company QGel has developed a technology to design synthetic extracellular matrices (ECMs) with reportedly broad implications for advances in targeted cancer-related drugs—this was exemplified as scientific journal Nature recently published a promising study co-authored by QGel co-founder Prof. Matthias Lütolf and conducted in his lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The study showed how QGel’s designer ECMs can successfully support intestinal and colorectal tissue growth while maintaining key features of patient-derived tissue. While such work has been ongoing, using a synthetic ECM can, the company notes, allow clinicians to upscale research and testing with no variability from batch to batch, promising highly reproducible results.
According to the Nature article, epithelial organoids recapitulate multiple aspects of real organs, making them promising models of organ development, function and disease. However, the full potential of organoids in research and therapy has remained unrealized, owing to the often poorly defined animal-derived matrices in which they are grown.
While much drug research has depended on animal-derived gels such as Matrigel and collagen, such laminin gel basement membranes have, according to QGel, limitations in drug discovery due to batch variability and challenges in scaling for large screening efforts. As reported in Nature, the fact that QGel technology can be used as a synthetic analogue to animal-derived gels indicates a potentially new chapter in industrial organoid research and development.
Using intestinal stem cells and patient colorectal cancer cells, the scientists publishing in Nature successfully defined key ECM parameters that govern organoid formation. They have shown that separate stages of the process require different mechanical properties and components of the ECM, such as matrix stiffness and the inclusion of derivatives of fibronectin and laminin. By exploiting QGel’s proprietary technology to modulate synthetic hydrogel compositions, scientists were able to define formulations for successful and reproducible organoid formation.
“Scientists were able to ... identify the factors that influence the stem cells of the gut to form intestinal organoids and colon tumoroids ... This included changing the matrix properties, such as its stiffness and degradability, during organoid development, as well as identifying key proteins needed to incite cell differentiation and organoid formation,” states Dr. Colin Sanctuary, QGel’s CEO and co-founder.
The technology has been in development since 2009, and has been commercially available since 2011 for use with cell line research. QGel is now focused on developing additional ECMs for a variety of organoids and patient cell types, with the goal to have more readily available options ready in 2017.
“The long-term goal for QGel is to provide clinicians with a novel point-of-care tool to better identify effective therapy for patients. The near-term goal is provide drug developers with an advanced in-vitro platform based on patient-derived cells that better predicts patient response in the preclinical phase of drug development,” says Sanctuary.
Following the Nature article, QGel announced it has successfully raised $12 million in new funding led by private investors. Added to $8.5 million secured in previous rounds of funding, the company says it is poised to accelerate its product development and broaden its global reach.
“QGel has created a disruptive technology platform that allows scientists to grow human cells and tissues in a lab [in vitro] so that the cell growth mimics behavior that is normally only observed inside the human body ... This fundraising will help us continue our partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, and help guide their development of therapies for millions living with and affected by cancer worldwide,” says Sanctuary.