"Microbiome" has become a health and wellness buzzword, implicated as a contributing factor in conditions ranging from diabetes and obesity to gastrointestinal disease, autoimmune diseases and even autism. But the tools scientists use to cultivate bacteria have changed little over the past century, said Peter Christey, founder and CEO of San Carlos, Calif.-based startup General Automation Lab Technologies Inc. (GALT). His firm is hoping to change that with a high-throughput system of hugely parallel arrays and high-resolution images of complex samples that will revolutionize the way microbiology laboratories process genetic material.
The microbiome refers to the genetic material of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses – all of the microbes that exist on and within the human body. Estimates are that the total number of genes in an individual's microbiome is 200 times greater than the number of genes in their human genome. The bacteria in the microbiome are of special interest to scientists and medical researchers because of their role in digestion, the immune system and protecting against harmful bacteria that cause disease.
"The microbiome, from a human perspective, is being implicated in many different disease states and may potentially drive some key features of what we see in human biology, like response to drugs or cancer progression. And so there's a large flood of people coming into this area, and they go to the lab and they find that they have tools that just do not really meet their needs," Christey told BioWorld. "What we're doing is enabling microbiology labs to be far more effective and efficient."
Microarray of tiny growth chambers
To do that, GALT has created a platform technology that, instead of just automating the current set of lab tools, consists of a very dense microfabricated array of tiny growth chambers for growing bacteria. When researchers load a sample into the array, the microbes self-sort into the chambers, which support the growth of single-strain microcolonies.
In addition to the array, which is the core of the Prospector system, there is an optic system that lets users visualize what is on the array and a mechanism to transfer interesting isolates from the array into a standard laboratory format so that researchers can conduct experiments on them.
In-house comparisons of Prospector and standard approaches show a 70% to 80% reduction in hands-on time associated with doing a cultivation experiment, or about a day and a half worth of work per week, according to Christey. "The hands-on time that we're removing is a very tedious, mundane set of activities, and people want their scientists to be doing science, not just repetitive tasks, which is what the current technology requires," he said. In addition, tests have shown that the system reduces the amount of space used in the lab, enabling scientists to do more experiments in parallel, he added.
$11.5B series A round
GALT has been developing its microarray system for the past four years, and it is now in final development. Last year, the company raised $11.5 million in a series A round aimed at financing product development and commercialization. Christey said that the company has been focused "like a razor" for the last 12 months on fine-tuning the Prospector system and is not starting to build out the commercial side of the organization as it transitions to the next phase of the business.
The global laboratory equipment and disposables market is projected to reach $38 billion by 2026, according to Acumen Research and Consulting. Within that space, GALT is looking to establish its brand in microbiology research lab sector. The company anticipates early commercial availability of Prospector at the end of this year. In academia, GALT is targeting labs focused on health and wellness, disease and the environment. On the industrial side, it sees an opportunity in companies studying the microbiome in food, pharmaceuticals, microbiome-related therapies and agricultural biotech.
'Extensive runway' of potential applications
For now, GALT is focused on utilization of the Prospector system and array-based approach in the cultivation and isolation of bacteria and seeing how it can accelerate microbiome research and address barriers to progress. That said, "we see a very extensive runway of new applications that we can add to that platform," Christey said.
"There has been just an Incredible surge in interest in both the academic and the industrial sectors in the potential of the microbiome and trying to understand it," Christey said. "What we see is a significant opportunity to help all these folks that are studying the microbiome do it a lot better and faster."