Faculty Launched Company Cultivates Cell Solutions

July 12, 2007 -- Under proper conditions and with the right nutrients, the cells of animals and plants removed from their host tissues can continue to grow.  The technique of propagating cells in a laboratory — known as cell culturing — is used extensively and for a wide variety of applications, from food science to drug discovery.

Traditionally, cells have been painstakingly cultivated in shallow glass or plastic “Petri” dishes.  Frustrations with the limitations of this two-dimensional format led Robin Felder, professor of pathology, to seek new cell culturing methods. 

Felder and his colleagues combined their understanding of cell biology and engineering in the Medical Automation Research Center to develop an automated, three-dimensional cell culturing process. This innovative approach employs the use of magnetic particles to gently suspend and cultivate highly sensitive cell lines. 

“By adopting this new technology in our laboratories, we have seen significant improvement in cell phenotype, performance, and relevance to the biological questions we are addressing, as well as a reduction in our cell culture costs,” says Felder.

The obvious commercial applications for this invention prompted Felder to bring his technology to the Darden Business School, where Uday Gupta was completing an M.B.A.  Gupta worked with Felder to create a business plan, which they entered into Darden’s Business Plan Competition.  Through this contest, their burgeoning company — Global Cell Solutions (GCS) — earned a spot in the Batten Incubator.  The Incubator provided the necessary space and infrastructure for GCS as well as facilitated a grant from the National Cancer Institute to further their unique Global Eukaryotic Microcarrier (GEM), a substrate for culturing cells, and BioLevitator, a complementary and novel bench-top cell culture system.

Next GCS entered the T100 Alumni Mentoring Program. T100 matches start-up companies with U.Va. alumni who are business experts in order to provide guidance and financial assistance to companies as they evolve from concept to commercialization.

“The T100 mentoring team was extremely invaluable,” says Gupta, now president of GCS.  “There are great ideas and discoveries coming out of the University but they need to be nurtured with the right people — the right business team.  Our T100 team offered a collection of expertise that provided us with leverage to push the company forward, and equally important to avoid pitfalls.” 

T100’s financial support also helped GCS to get their product closer to market, and fostered an investment by the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology and local investors.  This investment and T100 mentorship led to a partnership with Hamilton Company, a leading designer and manufacturer of liquid handling devices and laboratory automation.  GCS and Hamilton will team up to further develop and launch the BioLevitator system worldwide by early 2008.  This product promises to streamline the cell culturing process as well as improve the quality of cultivated cells.

“This partnership with Hamilton will lead to a suite of products and services aimed at delivering cells as reagents in order to meet the needs of a wide range of customers, from the individual researcher to the large laboratory facility,” explains Gupta

GCS anticipates that these technologies will facilitate important scientific discoveries.  "Novel developments in cell culture will be responsible for major advances in finding cures for human diseases as well as making stem cell technology practical and accessible,” says Felder.

Written by Melissa Maki, research communications coordinator for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.