Business & Tech

2 pharma giants, Calif. hospital to use Boston firm’s ‘organ-on-a-chip’

Cells from a person’s intestinal lining, placed in one of Emulate Inc.’s devices, form intestinal folds as they would in the human body.
Human Emulation System
Cells from a person’s intestinal lining, placed in one of Emulate Inc.’s devices, form intestinal folds as they would in the human body.

A Boston biotechnology startup that uses plastic chips to simulate human organs to test medicines outside of the body said Tuesday that two more pharmaceutical giants and a major California teaching hospital plan to use its technology to develop drugs.

Emulate Inc., which makes so-called organ-on-a-chip systems to test whether drugs are safe and effective, announced partnerships with Japan-based Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., Swiss-based F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of Los Angeles.

Emulate already had partnerships with the giant drug makers Johnson & Johnson and Merck, according to company officials. Emulate was founded in 2014 and bankrolled with $57 million in venture capital.

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As was the case with the earlier deals, financial terms of the partnerships with Takeda, Roche, and Cedars-Sinai were not disclosed. But the announcement signals growing interest in the technology of the privately held Boston company.

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“We are making very fast progress,” said Geraldine A. Hamilton, president and chief scientific officer of Emulate. “We’re addressing this huge need in the pharmaceutical industry to have more human elements to predict both safety and efficacy.”

The plastic chips, about the size of a computer thumb drive, are designed to hold human cells and blood so scientists can test medicines on tissues that are unique to different organs.

Takeda wants to use the chips to develop medicines to treat gastrointestinal diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease. Separate chips would simulate different organs in the gastrointestinal tract, such as the colon.

Roche plans to use the technology to develop new classes of therapeutic antibodies and drug combinations.

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Cedars-Sinai is going a step further. It is taking stem cells in blood samples from patients and reprogramming them to produce a duplicate of each individual’s unique intestinal lining.

“This pairing of biology and engineering allows us to re-create an intestinal lining that matches that of a patient with a specific intestinal disease — without performing invasive surgery to obtain a tissue sample,” said Clive Svendsen, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and coauthor of a recent study of the technology. “We can produce an unlimited number of copies of this tissue and use them to evaluate potential therapies.”

Emulate is a spinoff of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The institute is one of several academic centers working on the concept of bioemulation, or the use of technology to simulate on a small scale the functions of living organisms.

Jonathan Saltzman
can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.