In the lab at Altis Biosystems, researchers are working toward a world in which new drugs don’t have to be tested on animals.
Instead, new drugs could be tested on human tissue recreated by the lab’s stem cell technology.
“Our real goal, to put it plainly, is to make drug discovery faster, cheaper and safer while reducing the need for animal testing,” said Michael Biron, CEO of Altis Biosystems.
The biomedical technology that drives Altis Biosystems started on the UNC campus, in the Allbritton and Magness biomedical engineering labs.
Nancy Allbritton is distinguished Kenan professor and chair of the UNC Department of Biomedical Engineering. Scott Magness is associate professor of medicine, biomedical engineering and cell and molecular physiology in the UNC School of Medicine. Their lab is one of many in the area that fuels biotech start-ups.
It’s common for university lab discoveries to be be transferred, or spun-out, to a private company. The company creates products with the technology and brings it to market. There are more than 20 emerging startups at UNC right now.
Altis, built to compete in the market for preclinical studies and drug testing, was spun-out in 2015.
“We see this technology as something that can take medicine in that next step forward,” Biron said. “Making it more accurate, getting results faster, and taking pharmaceutical testing during preclinical studies to the next level.”
What They Do
Altis Biosystems has developed a patent-pending stem cell technology that recreates the human intestinal epithelium, the layer of cells that forms the lining of both the small and large intestine, Biron said.
The lab-grown cell epithelium can be used for drug testing and microbiome research. “Right now they’re using animal models and Caco-2 cells (colorectal cancer cells), so our platform will be able to come in and allow scientists to test drugs, before humans, on normal human tissue as opposed to having to test it on cancer cells and animal cells.”
The name Altis is short for "all tissue." It represents the company's goal to expand its testing platform to accommodate any type of human tissue. The researchers will do this by developing the stem-cell technology beyond the intestinal epithelium.
The Altis Biosystems platform will be sold with everything scientists need to test their compounds, Biron said. Each kit can use samples of tissue to screen up to 96 compounds, or tissue from 96 people to screen one compound across multiple genotypes simultaneously, Biron said. A scientist using the Altis Biosystems platform could test up to 96 unique intestinal tissue samples from 96 different people in their experiment.
The Role of Chapel Hill
Biron is keeping the start-up in Chapel Hill, citing the low cost of living, great quality of life and access to high-quality talent.
“We have a lot of highly educated people in Chapel Hill because UNC is just an exceptional university,” Biron said. “The people that I’m working with, they’re all at such a high level in their respective fields that it just makes it so much easier, with the credibility they bring to the table when speaking to other companies and the expertise that they have to really quickly advance the technology. That’s what makes this such a special place.”
A Strong Team
The company’s founders include:
Nancy Allbritton: Distinguished Kenan professor and chair of the UNC Department of Biomedical Engineering responsible for multiple spin-out companies, including ProteinSimple, Intellego and Cell Microsystems, Biron said.
Chris Sims: Adjunct professor of medicine and research professor of chemistry in the UNC School of Medicine. Responsible for spin-outs including ProteinSimple, Intellego and Cell Microsystems.
Yuli Wang: UNC research staff-member responsible for developing the intellectual property behind the Altis Biosystems technology, Biron said. He is also responsible for two other spin-out companies, Intellego and Cell Microsystems.
Scott Magness: Associate professor of medicine, biomedical engineering and cell and molecular physiology in the UNC School of Medicine, “focusing in intestinal stem-cell biology and helping to push forward Altis technology,” Biron said.
Scott Bultman: Associate professor of genetics in the UNC School of Medicine and “go-to microbiome guy” at Altis Biosystems, Biron said.
Michael Biron: CEO, former U.S. Army officer and University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler M.B.A. Program Graduate.