West Coast Editor

Its laser technology under development for isolating and analyzing cells in real time without damage reaped $17 million in a Series B financing for privately held Genoptix Inc.

The San Diego-based firm’s Optophoresis uses high-frequency near infrared laser light to characterize the physiological states of cells without corrupting dyes, labels or other markers, thus letting researchers study such things as drug response, gene expression and changes in cancer cells.

“We started the company at the end of 2000, so we’ve been working on the technology for about a year,” said Tina Nova, founder and CEO, and this first major round of financing will help finish work on a benchtop instrument, taking the company into more advanced stages of research, she said.

Optophoresis may be helpful not only in drug development but also in such areas as prenatal testing, Nova said.

“The fetal area has always been hot and attractive, but it’s tougher,” she told BioWorld Today. “There are still not good ways to separate fetal from maternal cells. The number of cells and the volume of blood is not that easy.”

Other possibilities include tissue engineering, cell selection, infertility and stem cell isolation, she said.

“That’s the great thing about the technology, and it’s a high-class problem,” Nova said. “There are so many places you can apply it.”

For now, the company is taking aim primarily at pharmaceutical research, where such efforts as cell separation are particularly important.

“It’s well known from the literature that there are lot of circulating cancer cells, long before the cancer is detected,” Nova said, noting that Optophoresis could help find those cells early.

As laser technology is refined in the telecommunications industry, Optophoresis could become even more valuable, she said. Does this mean images of separated cells sent through fiber-optic lines?

“That’s a little Star Wars,’ but I wouldn’t rule it out,” Nova said. “Some of the technology developed in the laser world has decreased cost and size, but it hasn’t been applied to biological problems. They’re starting to develop lasers the size of a dime,” and Genoptix intends to fit the smaller models into its product line.

Alliance Technology Ventures, of Atlanta, led the financing, which included Enterprise Partners, of La Jolla, Calif.; Lotus Bioscience Investment Holdings, of Hong Kong; Mitsubishi Corp., of New York; Mitsubishi International Corp., of Tokyo; Tullis-Dickerson & Co., of Greenwich, Conn.; and U.S. Trust’s Excelsior Venture Partners III LLC, of New York.