Lunaphore - Saving Time in the Fight Against Cancer
Déborah Heintze, Lunaphore's COO and Co-Founder, tells us why her technology could be especially crucial for a more rapid progress in research and talks to us about megatrends in the healthcare industry and milestones to come.
The focus of your activities is currently still strongly on research and your products enable researchers to discover new cancer biomarkers more quickly and accurately so that they can use their new findings to improve diagnostics. Where does Lunaphore currently stand on this still long and winding path?
Lunaphore is currently focused on enabling sophisticated assays for immune oncology research that are regularly used by translational medicine laboratories and pharmaceutical companies developing new diagnostic tests. As a first step, the core innovation of the company was to develop a microfluidic technology that allowed us to change the way tissue analytics tests are performed in order to improve their speed and precision. Since the founding of the company, Lunaphore has been developing automation systems around this technology and we have recently launched our first product, LabSat®, which is a device that can perform an immunohistochemistry (IHC) test in a matter of minutes. In other words, it can identify whether one or more biomarkers, such as tumoral or immune markers, are present on a tissue sample. We are also working on the next step – our mission is to support researchers gaining access to information they require. We are developing a next generation device with increased automation levels resulting in higher sample numbers it can process at one time, as well as increase the number of biomarkers we can analyse simultaneously, while integrating imaging capabilities too – this technique is something that poses many technical difficulties to researchers at the moment. With no perfect solution out there at the moment, we believe that our next product (still in development) will bring great value to immune oncology research, ultimately speeding it up and supporting the search for clinically relevant biomarkers and their potential use in diagnostics one day.
A biomarker tissue analysis usually takes approximately three hours, the so-called IHC test. Your device, the LabSat®, can do it in under 30 minutes. How does that happen?
The answer to this lies on the patented technology of Lunaphore: the microfluidic chip. This chip is essentially a tissue processor forming a hermetic micro-chamber where the reactions are going to take place. A tissue sample is sequentially incubated with different reagents following a well-defined, optimized protocol. By actively pushing a flow of reagents inside this shallow chamber, we are able to minimize the time it takes for these reagents to reach the surface of the tissue and increase the exchange between them, therefore dramatically reducing the incubation times required. This is what we call the Fast Fluidic Exchange Technology or FFeX.
What advantages do researchers enjoy with Lunaphore besides its speed?
The speed itself is indeed just one aspect, but it has ramifications: short incubation times expose tissues to harsh reagents for much shorter periods of time, and therefore preserve the tissue leaving it almost intact and enable the technology to increase the number of protocol cycles possible for the tissue to endure without significant damage. In practical terms, this means that we can actually stain many different biomarkers on the same tissue section, in order to visualize them simultaneously. This is called multiplex IHC and it is increasingly used to better understand the so called “tumour microenvironment”: we look at tumour markers, at immune markers and other elements surrounding the tumour, and analyse the interactions between these elements, if they are often simultaneously present (co-expressed) or appear close to one another, and understand which of these recurrent features have statistical and clinical significance. In this way, we are able to identify clinically relevant biomarkers to be used in the future for patient diagnosis, prognosis or treatment responsiveness. Another important benefit from Lunaphore’s platforms is the ability to automate sophisticated assays that involve complex, long protocols with delicate samples that require a high degree of precision. For instance, we are currently running a project to develop an automated system to perform RNA-related techniques such as in-situ sequencing. Ultimately, the key benefits from using our proprietary chip is the ability to perform and obtain high quality results from complex assays, which stems from the combination of innovative automation, precision fluidics, and the aforementioned tissue preservation.
The term "Personalized Medicine" is a Megatrend. With regards to the fact that there are many different types of tumours and every patient reacts differently to treatment, does this trend also affect you?
It has a huge impact on our field - as these biomarkers, which our technology is able to identify and which we are helping to discover in cancer research laboratories, may provide indications on how to better segment the different cancer types and their respective patients. To give you a simple example: if a tumour in a breast cancer patient possesses a specific mutation called HER2, and expresses therefore a HER2 protein, which is a biomarker that can easily be stained and identified with our technology, we will know that this patient can be treated with specific targeted therapies that use this HER2 receptor to work, and that wouldn’t produce any benefit in those patients that don’t have this mutation. That way, we are supporting doctors offering personalised therapies in providing the best-suited medical attention.
In order to be able to grow in the future, you are dependent on investors. Which phase of capital procurement are you currently in and are there further fundraising plans?
We announced a CHF 25M Series C financing round closing at the beginning of this year, which will be invested in market and product expansion. More specifically, the proceeds of this round will allow us to enter the US market, boost activities in Europe and further support the development of next generation instruments. Towards the end of this year, we plan to start fundraising activities for our Series D financing round.
If you look at the company’s history up to the present day, you can already demonstrate great successes. Tell us a little bit more about your next milestones?
So far, we’ve been able to steadily grow the company up to 40 employees and with them, we have developed, industrialized and launched our first products, as well as begun establishing a solid commercial structure to support the promotion and sales activities. Our next milestones are market expansion, including entering the US market and the development of new products to address the translational research market.
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