Startup looking to create paradigm shift in cell screening raises $2.89m in seed funding

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Monty Rakusen
© GettyImages/Monty Rakusen

Related tags: Stem cell, Drug discovery, Assay, Cell culture

Semarion Ltd, a University of Cambridge spin-out company combining materials engineering and cell biology to tackle unmet drug screening needs, has just closed a £2.14m (US$2.89m) seed funding round.

The investment round was led by Parkwalk Advisors, with the University of Cambridge Seed Funds, Martlet Capital, and angel investors also contributing.

Semarion was co-founded at the Cavendish Laboratory in 2018 by Jeroen Verheyen, CEO, Tarun Vemulkar, CTO, and Professor Russell Cowburn. The team is looking to address foundational bottlenecks in drug discovery by integrating expertise across disciplines. Their backgrounds are in cell model development and in advanced materials and microfabrication.

The company said the funding will support recruitment, commercial partnerships, and further development of the company’s SemaCyte cell assaying platform, which turns adherent cells into liquid reagents to enable novel drug screening methodologies.

In terms of next steps for the UK company, Verheyen told BioPharma Reporter:

“We have three products in our pipeline, all at different stages of market-readiness. Our first product, the SemaCyte Seeding Disc, enables the freezing of adherent cells in an assay-ready format for fast and reliable compound profiling.

“After successful alpha trials, we are now scaling up manufacturing, validating additional assay kits and cell types, and setting up commercial product trials.”

Over the next 12-24 months, Semarion is looking to fully commercialize this product for use in rapid cell screening assays.

“To achieve this goal, we are currently expanding our team with cell biologists and process engineers. We are also engaging in collaborations and partnerships to offer bespoke solutions to biopharma clients. Here, we leverage more advanced materials features such as cell-multiplexing and ultra-miniaturization to enable unique screening workflows, e.g. for complex assays such as those using primary or iPS-derived cells,”​ continued the CEO.

Verheyen also outlined why Semarion’s technology is uniquely positioned to address a significant market opportunity and revolutionize drug discovery approaches:

“While assays with suspension cells have benefitted from lots of innovative solutions, such as those using cytometry or microfluids, there has been a lack of innovation for adherent cell assays. The anchorage dependence limits the use of adherent cells as a resource. With our SemaCyte microcarrier platform, we are the first to turn adherent cells into reagents which can be pooled, split, frozen, and sorted.”

Time and cost savings

This approach, said the CEO, can drastically change the way adherent cells are used.

“With our first product we enable assay-ready adherent cells. Instead of culturing cells, stripping, and plating, it is now possible to merely thaw and assay. This not only cuts down the time and cost for compound profiling but can also reduce the experimental variably due to issues with batch-to-batch consistency in typical cell culture.

“With our optical barcoding feature, we can furthermore facilitate in-well cell multiplexing of 10 cell types, which can accelerate cell panel screening, for example, during drug positioning studies. By carefully titrating the amount of SemaCyte microcarriers into wells, we can control how many cells are added per well. This can further reduce the cells-per-assay, key for assays with scarce cell types such as patient or stem cell derived cells.”

Another of the advantages arising from its model is on the equipment front: “Our materials are compatible with most cell screening workflows, such as those using multi-well plates, plate readers, and imaging equipment," ​added Verheyen.

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