University spinoff saves preserved cells from ice damage

· The Pulse

A startup based in Edmonton and Ottawa is pioneering a new class of chemical additives to prevent living cells from being damaged during cryopreservation.

PanTHERA CryoSolutions, which emerged from a longtime research collaboration between University of Alberta cryobiologist Jason Acker and University of Ottawa chemistry professor Robert Ben, is aiming to release its first product by the end of 2023 and has another in the works.

"The industry has been looking for newer technologies, and that's where PanTHERA comes in," Acker told Taproot.

Inspired by nature — specifically, a protein found in a species of fish that survives freezing during winter — Acker and Ben created a new class of cryopreservation agents (CPAs) called ice recrystallization inhibitors (IRIs). These small, sugar-based molecules easily penetrate cells and prevent ice recrystallization, during the initial freezing as well as amid temperature fluctuations during shipping, thus ensuring that cryopreserved cells are healthier and quicker to recover after thawing.

You may have experienced the unpleasant crunch of recrystallization when the phenomenon strikes ice cream in your home freezer. Although it's no fun to throw out a quart of rocky road because of freezer burn, ice recrystallization in cryopreservation brings more severe consequences, namely damage to the precious cells, tissues, and organs needed for health research, medical treatments, reproductive assistance, blood-banking, and more.

PanTHERA's potential customers are cryopreservation companies serving the gene and cell therapy markets. Seattle's BioLife Solutions — the largest in the industry, with 70% of the global market — has licensed the product. It also invested US$1 million in the company in 2020, as did Casdin Capital.

PanTHERA has also received Canadian support for its research and commercialization activities from sources such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, GlycoNet, and Canadian Blood Services. This spring, the company received up to $395,700 from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) to fund ongoing IRI research and $40,000 from Alberta Innovates to support the development of a machine-learning algorithm for assessing the toxicity of IRIs in zebrafish embryos.

Once the product launches later this year, PanTHERA will explore other market opportunities, including organ banking, and begin its next funding round. "We've started to have some conversations with our existing funders, stakeholders, and VCs that are supporting us," said Acker, who is heading to Boston in May to speak at the Allogenic Cell Therapies Summit.

A smiling Jason Acker with lab equipment behind him Jason Acker is the Edmonton-based co-founder of PanTHERA Cryosolutions, which is getting ready to release its first product this year. (Supplied)

At the moment, several third-party cell therapy companies are evaluating PanTHERA's inaugural product, and Acker says PanTHERA has already published studies showing its effectiveness.

IRIs aren't drugs, they're excipients (additives), so the company doesn't need to jump through Health Canada's many regulatory hoops; it does, however, need to meet stringent manufacturing standards before the product, sold in the form of a white powder, can be produced at PanTHERA's manufacturing facility in Ottawa.

The market for cryopreservation is growing rapidly and is expected to surpass US$52.5 billion by 2030, suggesting plenty of opportunities to come.

Much of this growth is the result of 30 years of cell therapy research finally coming to fruition, said Acker. Scientists can now treat or even cure certain diseases by placing new cells in a person's body, such as immune cells engineered to destroy certain types of cancer. Cell therapies are now coming to market en masse, and biotech companies are searching for better cryopreservation technologies in order to transport cells safely.

Some aspects of cryopreservation remain the stuff of science fiction — such as cryopreserving an entire human being in order to later revive them — but Acker marvels at the incredible changes made to the field during his 30 years as a scientist. He's quick to note that cryopreservation technology has applications beyond medicine, such as agriculture (think animal husbandry and seed conservation) and preserving endangered species (Acker has collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution on related research).

As the cryopreservation industry grows and cryobiology advances, Acker is content to remain in Edmonton, which he describes as a world leader in cryopreservation and cryobiology. He notes that of the 34 international fellowships awarded by the Society of Cryobiology in its 60-year history, three have gone to researchers at the University of Alberta. The U of A is one of only a few places in the world offering graduate training in cryopreservation and cryobiology.

"The running joke is that it's because this is one of the coldest places on the planet," he said.