They are probably the smallest syringes in the world. In addition, they also have force feedback built in. It’s a combination of atomic force microscopy and integrated microfluidics.
These are the words of Pablo Dörig, VP Research Solutions from Cytosurge, when I asked him to tell me about their patented product portfolio. Those tiny syringes (think an aperture 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair) are a game changer for the single cell genomic and gene editing applications; since patenting the technology in 2009 the company has gone from strength to strength.
As well as Pablo I caught up with Katarina Svitek, Digital Marketing Manager and Tobias Beyer who was recently promoted to Senior Scientist/ CSO at Cytosurge after 10 years spent in academic research. I wanted to speak to a cross section of a company that a lot of people in the life science space are talking about.
Katarina Svitek, Pablo Dörig & Tobias Beyer
Back to the technology; Fluidic force microscopy (FluidFM) was developed by Cytosurge’s founders whilst pursuing their PhD at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. They went commercial with their first product in 2013, which is known today as the FluidFM AFM Series.
The AFM Series takes its name from the Atomic Force Microscopes to which it attaches, giving them nanotechnology and microfluidic capabilities, to be able to be more precise in smaller regions and handle liquids at the femtoliter scale.
From the initial manufacturing breakthrough of super small syringes and the subsequent commercialisation of the FluidFM AFM ADD-ON, Cytosurge’s product offering has expanded. From the consumable probes, to 3D printers (now marketed by the spin-out company Exaddon) to their latest innovation, the BOT BIO Series.
The FluidFM BOT BIO Series
The precision given to scientists by Cytosurge’s equipment lends itself perfectly to single cell research. An emerging field in cell biology, it has traditionally had a high barrier to entry. Enter the BOT BIO Series, Cytosurge’s attempt to facilitate biologist’s access to single cell research. The FluidFM BOT BIO Series is essentially a highly automated point and click system for single cell experiments, meaning that users can be up and running in as long as it takes to position their sample and probe.
Tobias, who considers himself a molecular cell biologist, was seriously impressed the first time he saw the platform. He told me that he was “really amazed how quickly you can catch up on the technology and how easy it is to use it” and that “it’s made for biologists by engineers with a strong biology background, and it really worked out”.
Why is this ability to manipulate single cells with such ease so important? One reason is speed. The entire process is faster and the increased precision of engineering only one cell at a time, rather than having to deal with thousands if not millions in one sample, means the process is significantly more economic and gentler on the cells. That in turn leads to a higher success rate in the gene editing process.
Close-up of the FluidFM nanosyringe from Cytosurge
The gentle approach also facilitates working on particularly rare and sensitive cells. Katarina called this a “bottom up” approach, whereby Cytosurge enables the scientist to pick the individual cell they want and analysing that, instead of having to deal with a much larger sample size, narrowing down from there.
Adding the ‘forced feedback’ element to the technology means that the entire process is controlled with more precision, enabling the scientist to “manipulate the cells without damaging them”, according to Pablo, opening the door to sensitive cell types that are often not accessible to other devices, like IPS cells and neurons.
The best way to find out what makes a company tick is to ask the people that work there, so I was really interested to learn what drew the three people I spoke to, to the business.
As Pablo was the old hand, having been with the business since the beginning, he went first, telling me that the product itself is what drew him in:
10 years ago when I started my PhD, I was just fascinated by this tiny syringe and its potential applications. We had a lot of applications in mind but never would have dreamed that it could become such a tool for CRISPR because CRISPR didn’t exist back then. But for me, I truly believed in the technology.
Since he took the plunge, it’s been an exciting journey. Pablo has had a number of positions including product management and business development before his current role heading up research solutions.
Next up, Senior Scientist/CSO, Tobias. He said he wasn’t sure what to expect after 10 years in academic research, but that he’s felt very comfortable since making the move. The approach to collaboration is what drew him to the business:
From my point of view, the collaborative atmosphere here within the company is better than at any university I’ve worked in so far. It’s inspiring to have people with engineering backgrounds as well as chemists, biologists like me and more commercial profiles. Just gaining insight into these other areas is very stimulating.
Last up, Katarina. She’s been with the business just over a year and the draw for her was a simple one:
It’s an investment in new technologies that can truly save human lives and I believe that biotechnology is the key to the better future. I’ve been watching the gene editing area and CRISPR technology before I joined the company and after joining the firm and getting more “hands-on” my excitement grew further. The team in Cytosurge delivers tangible results and it seems that we could be on the verge of breakthrough in the upcoming years.
So, what could a ‘really huge’ breakthrough be? What could the future hold for Cytosurge?
Cytosurge’s technology means that future gene editing and cell line development can be performed much more effectively. This means customized cell lines for pharmaceutical, clinical and biotechnical applications as well as fundamental research which could see us start to unlock cures to diseases that kill millions every year.
The announcement of partnerships like that with Harvard’s Wyss Institute is testament to the future of the company. Cytosurge is making exciting partnerships like this one a key part of their journey moving forward.
In a world in which we’re just realising the impact that fast, effective scientific research can have on human health, it’s not a huge leap of faith to suggest that other innovative technology providers will spring up where Cytosurge are blazing a trail. It remains to be seen what the true impact of technology like this can and will have.
If you'd like to learn more about Cytosurge, please get in touch by emailing Adam.Butler@lifesci-cm.com.
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For this episode of CM Conversations, our Director of Operations Tom Maskill spoke with QIAGEN CEO Thierry Bernard.