Travelling together with an organ-on-a-chip

The Zurich-based company InSphero has successfully completed a joint project with FHNW (University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland) to develop a 3D organ-on-a-chip assay that can predict the metabolic stability of pharmaceutical drugs. The year-long project was part-funded by Innosuisse, and the study culminated in partnerships being forged with major pharmaceutical companies.

Not all innovative schemes and ideas, however inspired, end up as a success story. Finding the path to success requires a multitude of factors to come together and sourcing funding or potential partners forms an integral part of this process. The Zurich-based company InSphero, a specialist in 3D tissue-based assay solutions, set off on its journey in 2017. Its project was to reproduce a system that closely mirrored the workings of the liver in order to observe how the metabolism breaks down drugs. And just one year later, the work was done and the results were on the table.

Nothing happened by chance. Rather, it was down to the determination of a team of highly motivated and resourceful entrepreneurs with a welcome boost from Innosuisse. Of particular importance was the assistance that Innosuisse provides in facilitating joint innovation projects between companies and research institutions. Working with Innosuisse was ideal for InSphero.

Having already benefited on other projects from the expertise of FHNW - and more specifically from the knowledge of Dr Laura Suter-Dick, Professor of Molecular Toxicology, and her research team - the SME applied to Innosuisse for funding to carry out the study. “We had to conduct a lot of experiments to prove that our system was viable, which takes considerable work and resources. This required external support. We thought that Innosuisse would be the perfect partner to get this project completed, from the initial model to the final product,” explains Dr Olivier Frey, Head of Technologies and Platforms at InSphero.

It was not just the innovative approach, but also the potential for generating value for the economy and society, that were key to the project funding application being accepted. “We have to be able to create new drugs to treat any new diseases that emerge,” says Dr Suter-Dick. “And studies need to be done to understand how long a substance remains stable in the human body and therefore how many times it can be given to a patient. The system proposed by InSphero makes it possible to reproduce what goes on in the body using an in vitro technology – in other words, without having to test anything on animals, for example.”

On the back of a positive evaluation, the project quickly took shape. “The decision-making process doesn’t take long, which is a benefit when getting a study off the ground,” says an enthusiastic Dr Frey. “Without the financial support from Innosuisse, we wouldn’t have been able to finish this project. I don’t believe that a small company like InSphero could have funded the kind of scientific research that we did. It’s not always easy for small outfits like ours to do exploratory research, and I think Innosuisse is the perfect way to go about this.”

Dr Suter-Dick agrees: “I’m a firm believer in Innosuisse’s funding model. The opportunities it offers are a great help to SMEs. I don’t think you’ll find anything like this anywhere else – there won’t be many other countries offering this kind of support.”

The project was brought to a successful conclusion in October 2018, a year after it launched. “The initial studies were quite tech-heavy and took us a bit longer than expected. But what matters in the end is that results have been achieved and that the data collected can be used,” says Dr Frey. “We’re currently working on obtaining even more validations by conducting even more experiments. With the data we have in our hands, we’ve already been able to approach clients and have some major pharmaceutical companies test our product. Once the necessary tests have been done, the idea is to standardise it.”

The InSphero 3D organ-on-a-chip assay is a great example of successful project execution. It demonstrates how productive working together can be and how in so doing, the potential for forging future partnerships is increased. “We’ve maintained some good contacts at InSphero and are exploring the idea of collaborating on a new project and asking Innosuisse for its support once again,” Dr Suter-Dick concurs.

Text: Johanne Stettler

Last modification 27.06.2022

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