(Originally published by SynBioBeta, February 9, 2016)
Precision Nanosystems, led by Dr. James Taylor, has created a powerful technology facilitating the development and manufacturing of nanoparticles. Using microfluidics, which is jargon for “small plumbing,” the company’sNanoAssemblr system is essentially a miniature factory for nanoparticles.
Nanomedicines are a powerful technology that can be used to deliver drugs and other materials directly to specific locations in the body. Precision Nanosystems seeks to solve a key challenge with nanomedicines, which is making easier, faster, more reliable systems for creating the particles. Founded in 2010 in Vancouver, Canada, the company has raised $13.4 million in a Series A financing from 5AM Ventures, Telegraph Hill Partner, Rising Tide Fund and individual investors.
“We like to think that we are democratizing the use and development of nanomedicine,” James said to SynBioBeta, “We can take what used to be an artisan craft where you have extensive training at the postdoc level of how to make these materials. By providing the technology, we can enable anyone to make as good of nanoparticles as anyone else in the world.”
The Nitty-Gritty of the Technology
The overarching goal at Precision Nanomedicine is to accelerate the development of transformative medicine. The technology is tuned to create everything from small volumes of particles for drug development, to large volumes for clinical testing. NanoAssemblr enables the assembly of particles that other systems cannot make. For example, the particles can be smaller, 15-20 nm instead of 70-80 nm, which allows them to get deeper into tissues. In the medicinal realm, this allows for the delivery of RNA molecules and nucleic acids to perturb gene networks.
James explains that their technology is especially important for users because nanomedicine has not advanced very quickly from the perspective of manufacturing.
The technology that enables this is called microfluidics. The scale at which the system deals with fluids allows for control that is very different from a macroscopic scale. It enables exquisite control of both physical and chemical environments, enabling precise formation of the nanoparticles. Microfluidics is often used to create more sensitive assays for measurement purposes. However, Precision Nanosystems is using it in a completely different context: to make nanoparticles at an industrial level, while still maintaining the microfluidic advantage of precision.
According to James, In the early days, nanomedicines were created using a top-down approach, taking material in large pieces and applying energy to it to make it much smaller. One such method used to manufacture nanomedicine drugs on the market is extrusion. This essentially means pushing globules of liquid against a filter with enough pressure that they form small homogenous structures.
The NanoAssemblr systems takes nanoparticle components that are in solution and control a nanoprecipitation reaction, changing the condition in a very controlled and rapid manner to cause those particles to come of solution. This enables the many molecules making up a nanoparticle to create the correct structures.
“We use microfluidics as we believe it’s fundamentally the best way to control the self-assembly process,” James says.
The CEO’s Not so Winding Path to Precision Nanosystems
“For me it was fairly natural to go into an entrepreneurial role, that was always my focus,” James recounts, “But I would say that being an engineer and a scientist, and driving a company like ours is actually critical. Everything is about the science. We sell our products to scientists. We innovate using engineering and science. It’s absolutely critical. That’s the main thing. Being an entrepreneur, being a businessperson, that is the layer on top of that.”
James moved from undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics to a PhD in Genetics at the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), where he was “indoctrinated” into the systems biology approach. He recalls that this was a great place for an engineer to learn biology. During his PhD, he mostly worked with bioinformatics and microfluidics, working on creating new tools to solve meaningful biological challenges. In the context of systems biology, these challenges were mostly around how to measure and analyze complex systems.
There is a great deal of systems biology thinking in Precision Nanosystems and that stems from James’ experience at the ISB. The institute epitomized the importance of unification of technology and biology. Precision Nanosystems enables genetic medicines that can turn genes on and off, which is very much in line with systems medicine.
James recounts Dr. Leroy Hood, president and co-founder of ISB, saying that people always underestimate the pace of technology. People tend to think growth happens in a linear fashion, but in reality, it is exponential and more.
“You start to understand how much of a big impact new tools and technology have on biology, says James, “How we think about it is by creating new tools and technologies that enable us to do new things. And that allows the acceleration of the field and of medicine.
When James tells people about his company and technology he says people are excited to hear the power of technology, trying to cure cancer, stop pandemic flu, or cure rare diseases.
“Biological [has] become a digital science where now we can understand it really at a digital level,” he says. In the last decade, measurement technologies, for instance, have enabled us to read and reach digital information. In other words, the genetic toolbox is allowing biology to be digital.
His primary goal is to disseminate the technology as widely as possible. Over the next twelve months, they will be launching new products and hopefully getting new groups using the technology. They also plan to work with existing partners to help them make their materials, develop new drugs, and carry them forward to clinical and other work as well.
Look for James and Precision Nanosystems at SynBioBeta London 2016 on April 7th, in Session 4: Robotics and Hardware for Synthetic Biology, starting at 3:00 PM.