Isoplexis takes on cancer, one cell at a time

Co-founded by Yale’s Rong Fan and Sean Mackay ‘14, the biotech startup is dedicated to fighting cancer and other diseases by improving detection systems.
icoplexis logo on a metal wall sign

As Isoplexis, the company co-founded by Yale’s Rong Fan and Sean Mackay ’14, prepares to take its production to the next level in 2018, two science news publications have honored the company for technology that tailors optimum treatments for cancer patients.

The Scientist magazine named the company’s IsoCode chip and IsoLight platform, an all-in-one system that reads the individual cells of tumors, as the Top Innovation of 2017. One week later, FierceBiotech named the same system the 2017 Fierce Innovation Award for Technology Innovation.

Rong Fan
Rong Fan

I think this is a major milestone and a validation of our technology and how it can help use the immune system to save patients’ lives,” said Fan, associate professor of biomedical engineering, who began developing the technology when he was a postdoctoral researcher.

By capturing and analyzing large quantities of highly precise data per individual patient cell, the technology allows health care professionals to determine which patients will benefit from certain cancer therapies.

It’s proactive information with long-term impact, and that’s what we hope to provide throughout the therapeutic world,” said Mackay, Isoplexis CEO and a 2014 graduate of the School of Management. “You’ll know earlier in the process whether those immune cells will lead to an effective or toxic patient reaction, and whether or not you can manage that.”

This level of precision could be a key factor in what’s known as CAR-T therapy, which involves re-engineering a patient’s immune cells to better fight the patient’s cancer. This therapy, however, can also elicit dangerously toxic reactions, particularly when cells release a high number of the proteins known as cytokines. The Isoplexis platform is able to single out those cells that produce many cytokines, which could make managing toxicity much easier.

For all its technological advances, the device itself is fairly simple to operate. A tumor sample is placed on the flat surface of the device. The cells of the tumor are then scuttled to thousands of microscopic chambers to be analyzed individually. Users then read the data on a computer.

Handheld Isocode Chip being held by someone wearing medical gloves
The Isocode Chip device.

One of the company’s first major milestones was showing that the technology could be manufactured and reproduced. The company now produces hundreds of the chips each week — mostly for researchers in the immuno-oncology field. They plan to increase production in 2018, as the platform moves from prototype to actual product.

We’re getting close to scaling up manufacturing and releasing a product — that’s probably the most exciting thing,” said Fan, adding that they’ve already received requests for the technology from 50 universities and hospitals around the world. “Being an inventor and engineer who developed the technology, I’m just so happy to see this being used everywhere around the globe.”

Similar technologies are able to analyze large numbers of cells at a time. But Isoplexis’s technology, licensed from Yale and California Institute of Technology, reads each cell individually — a distinction that makes a big difference. It simultaneously measures up to 42 immune effector function proteins secreted from single cells. Without the level of detailed information that the Isoplexis technology provides, the data of patients tend to look the same.

Sean Mackay
Sean Mackay ’14

We found that the additional functional proteins that we’re able to see per cell have allowed us to identify the differences in patients who respond to treatment and those who don’t,” Mackay said.

Founded in 2013, the company has grown at a fast clip. Based in Branford, its main facility — a 10,300-square-foot space — has recently been augmented with an additional 4,500-square-foot facility nearby. In four years, the number of employees has increased from a handful to nearly 50.

In addition to raising $18.9 million from investors, the company recently received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop an automated platform to assess CAR-T product potency and toxicity and predict patient response. The company has received a total of $7.4 million from various federal agencies to advance technologies related to different areas of precision medicine. The goals for these technologies include better immunotherapies for solid tumors, improved diagnoses of bone marrow disease and autoimmune diseases, and the development of infectious disease vaccines.

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