Startups, BioPharma

From orthopedics to MS, Ananda Devices wants to harness the potential of organ-on-a-chip

Ananda Devices CEO talks about plans for expanding its organ-on-a-chip tech from researching spinal cord injuries to neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Regrowing neurons: Organ-on-a-chip (left) vs. Petri dish. Source: Ananda Devices

Regrowing neurons: Organ-on-a-chip (left) vs. Petri dish. Source: Ananda Devices


McGill University Biochemist Margaret Magdesian, the CEO and founder of Ananda Devices, was tired of seeing her cells die prematurely in a Petri dish, so she created a tiny silicon mold that mimics the inside of the human body. She increased her productivity more than 50-fold, going from one or two experimental results a day to 120 a day.

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Magdesian’s innovation is one of the latest in the organ-on-a-chip movement, which has the potential to dramatically accelerate the drug industry research and development. Scientists generally “put some cells on a Petri dish and hope they will grow exactly like they grow in the body, and hope they will respond exactly like a human body will, and this does not happen,” Magdesian said in a phone interview.

Her device is shaped like the spinal cord. When neurons are added to the tubular mold, they fare much better, according to the scientist. “Our spinal cord is a cable of nerves inside the vertebral column, and it has a precise shape, and when you remove this cable and you put it on a Petri dish, it just get all entangled and mixed. So it’s impossible to reproducibly cause a lesion and to evaluate if this lesion is cured or not,” she said.  “When we make a mold exactly like the vertebral column, and add the cells, they grow inside precisely like they grow in the body.”

In the picture above, the right side is an image of jumbled neurons grown in a Petri dish and the left side is an image of neurons grown using the organ-on-a-chip device. By keeping the cell’s organization intact, the organ-on-a-chip device should improve the reproducibility of scientific research. That would be a major accomplishment, as more than half of researchers are unable to reproduce their own results, let alone those of others, according to Nature.

“The main advantage is that our products can help you organize your cell cultures to achieve reproducible and impactful results faster. Today, scientists lack control over the reproducibility of cell cultures, and cell culture variability is a main source of experimental error. Our devices are the first ones to be able to hold the organized cells alive for weeks. This is very important for neurons because before two weeks, neurons do not communicate. In our devices they can survive up to a month, and it’s long enough to make different tests,” Magdesian said.

Magdesian sold 2,000 copies of the device after presenting her research results at scientific conferences and meetings. When a private company called and asked for 10,000 molds, the scientist realized she had a business.

She’s been the CEO of Ananda Devices since August 2015. The four-person company based in Montreal is a joint venture of the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill’s department of physics. Former Yahoo COO Jeff Mallett has signed on as an angel investor.

Ananda is finalizing the deal to sell 10,000 of its molds, and collaborating with a few other drug makers and academic labs, according to Magdesian.

“We’re all about scaling up,” she said. To that end, manufacturing is set to accelerate at McGill’s microfabrication facilities.

The device was initially intended for Magdesian’s research into spinal cord injury, but Ananda is branching out into other therapeutic areas.

“We started with neurons because that’s my background, and that’s what the devices were first made for, but now we’re using them to study cancer cells, to study parasites, and to study other diseases of the neurological system like multiple sclerosis,” she said.

The size of the device can be altered depending on its use, according to Magdesian. When used to study cancer cells, the mold is enlarged, she said. Furthermore, the mold’s shape can be customized to match that of various parts of the body, albeit on a smaller scale.

Magdesian compared the process to baking cakes in differently shaped pans to achieve the desired conformation: “I do more or less the same thing, but instead of a cake, I put cells inside.”

Organ-on-a-chip (also called lab-on-a-chip, or microfluidic) devices are on a roll. Cambridge start-up Emulate in May raised $28.75 million in a Series B round, as it seeks to commercialize its devices that emulate the environment of the lung, liver, intestine and skin, and create additional ones that model the kidney, heart and brain. This week, University of Pennsylvania researchers created a placenta-on-a-chip to figure out the causes of preterm births and how to prevent them.

“Most of the microfluidic devices are developed by engineers, and they are full of tubing and pumps. In biology, this may cause contamination and biological labs would rather not use those. One of the advantages of our technology is that we don’t use any pumps. We don’t use any tubing. And it doesn’t a require a change of the research protocol,” Magdesian said.

Ananda was one of the global finalists in the 1776 Challenge Cup pitch competition earlier this yea. Next up, the company will present at the Hello Tomorrow Challenge in Paris, another startup competition focused on science and technology companies.