From micro sieve to single-cell platform.
VyCAP developed the Puncher platform to capture, count, isolate, and analyze rare cells. This innovative platform is currently being used for cancer research and the development of new therapies and vaccines. For vaccine development, the one cell that produces the best protein to combat a specific disease is isolated out of a sample containing thousands of cells. “When you isolate tumor cells, you can study them at a molecular level and develop personalized therapy for every individual patient. Alternatively, the same technology can be used for the development of medicine – against COVID-19, for example,” CTO Joska Broekmaat explains.
VyCAP, a University of Twente spin-off company, began its developments with a point-of-care device to characterize meningitis in 2011. “Since 2014, our focus has been on the development of the Puncher system,” CTO Joska Broekmaat – who joined the company in 2015 – says. “It is a promising technology that was plagued by one critical issue: we could not guarantee the reproducibility and stability of the platform. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.”
Focus on quality and stability
In recent years, the team worked tirelessly to improve its products. “We wanted to develop a reliable method for the selection and isolation of individual cells.” After extensive research and development, the team has now built a stable Puncher platform and matching disposables. “The Puncher has already demonstrated its value in laboratories in academic hospitals in the Netherlands and abroad,” Joska says. “With the help of software, the platform can select the right individual cells and then isolate them one by one. For example, by isolating individual cancer cells found in a patient’s blood, we can learn more about the disease progression and perhaps select a more effective treatment.”
VyCAP used various incentive schemes for its product development. The international INTERREG-project made a significant contribution to the ongoing development of the Puncher platform. By collaborating closely with end-users and suppliers in the Netherlands and Germany, the company was able to realize a technically superior platform with a focus on the end-user. With help from the HighTech Fund, the team was able to acquire the necessary production equipment in recent years. For the past few years, the spinoff has earned a profit with the sale of its products.
Since late 2019, the team has been targeting a new market with the Puncher platform: the pharmaceutical industry. “For the production of a vaccine or immunotherapy, you need to find the one cell that produces the largest quantity of the best protein or antibody. We can analyze the production of these molecules by thousands of single cells in record time, next isolate the best cell and cultivate it to rapidly acquire larger quantities for further testing,” Joska explains. The first contracts with pharmaceutical companies have been signed and this new market is a promising one. “We expect to be able to grow rapidly in the years to come and to achieve maturity, especially in this market. Our platform is many times cheaper and months faster than anything our competitors can offer. Our ambition is to expand VyCAP from the eight employees we have today to twenty or thirty FTE by 2025.”
Single-cell analysis is a billion-euro industry
The single-cell platform has far greater potential. “Our biggest market lies in the routine clinical cancer diagnostics based on circulating cancer cells. Our platform can play an important role in that field when it comes to the selection of effective personalized treatment,” Joska says about the company’s plans for the future. “To do so, we must first demonstrate the applicability of isolated single circulating cancer cells in the treatment of cancer by clinical research. Considering the fact that cancer affects one in five people, this can potentially lead to millions of disposables and a billion-euro industry.” VyCAP is collaborating with academic hospitals in the Netherlands and Germany, but the company still has a long way to go and plenty of obstacles to overcome. “Eventually, we will have to start looking for ways to fund this research. Novel-T is helping us with that.”
Roy Kolkman @Novel-T
“Joska and the team at VyCAP are highly driven,” Roy Kolkman says. They are translating their technology into practical applications and go all-in whenever they see an opportunity worth seizing. At the same time, they operate in a difficult field. “Their technology is disruptive and changes existing laboratory methods. The fact that they have managed to get their technology placed in such a conservative sector is impressive.” Novel-T’s business developers are helping the team translate its innovation to the market’s needs. Roy: “We have frequent sparring sessions and utilize our network to help the team get ahead. My hope is that the Puncher will be used to isolate the right cells one by one, in many places all over the world in five years’ time.”
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