BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - CellCentric Ltd. signed a deal giving it exclusive access to epigenetics-related intellectual property from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and triggering an investment of £250,000 (US$470,422) from the Rainbow Seed Fund.

The company's aim is to use epigenetics to reprogram somatic cells, opening a new route to regenerative medicine and cell therapy that would be less controversial than using stem cells. In mouse models, it has identified 25 master control genes that are involved in changing the epigenetic status of cells, and which could be targeted by small molecules.

Cathy Prescott, chief scientific officer, told BioWorld International, "We can take a small molecule to drive a cell in a particular direction, thus creating a way for big pharma to get into regenerative medicine."

The agreement between CellCentric and Babraham brings together research carried out by the company's founder, Azim Surani, at the University of Cambridge, which has one of the world's largest centers of epigenetics research with 70 staff. Surani set up CellCentric a year ago with funding from Avlar Bioventures Ltd.

Epigenetics is concerned with controlling gene expression so that cells containing the same set of genes are driven to become different cell types. By identifying proteins involved in that differentiation, CellCentric said it can remove the epigenetic imprint, thus creating cells with broad development potential, and will be able to discover candidates that are able to manipulate cell function and fate, too.

Surani was the first to demonstrate the existence of germ cell-based reprogramming factors capable of erasing epigenetic imprints and transforming somatic cells back to a pluripotent state. There is evidence that small-molecule protein mimetics can have the same effect - allowing regenerative medicine products to be developed in line with the traditional pharmaceutical methods.

Prescott said the approach would circumvent many of the technical, ethical and regulatory issues that confront the use of stem cells for cell therapy and regenerative medicine. "[With epigenetics] you can use small molecules to drive differentiation or de-differentiation, aiming at a single target in a pathway, and creating a bridge to big pharma."

The technology will be applied to cancer therapeutics, also. It has been known for some time that the majority of cancer cells have altered epigenetic patterns, but it is only recently that the possibility of using epigenetic modification mechanisms to treat cancer was recognized.

"When a cell becomes cancerous it is changing its cell fate," Prescott said. "We are working to identify what is going wrong with epigenetic fate so we can tackle cancer."

Those research plans are at an early stage, and Prescott said the more immediate plan is to commercialize the technology in the production of livestock and transgenic animals for producing biologics, and to develop research tools.

Removing the epigenetic imprint of a somatic cell is expected to improve the efficiency of somatic cell nuclear transfer, in which the nucleus of an egg is replaced with the nucleus of an adult cell, and then induced to divide.

"At present, this technology is highly inefficient, with only a few transformed eggs going on to produce a live animal," Prescott said. "The problem is the epigenetic status of the cell is wrong - we can reset it."

Epigenetics is expected also to produce some significant research tools. For example, it will be possible to take a somatic cell with a disease status backward to a healthy cell, and then forward to study how the disease evolves at a cellular level.