Bubbling up nicely for Akadeum’s sample prep tech

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Microbubble under scanning electron microscopy (SEM) Picture: Akadeum
Microbubble under scanning electron microscopy (SEM) Picture: Akadeum
Akadeum Life Sciences has closed a financing round to continue development of microbubble technology to simplify the sample preparation process.

The firm is developing products that can separate cells, proteins, nucleic acids and food pathogens in a tube which will enable larger volumes to be concentrated.

Microbubble technology works by capturing cells or biomolecules and floating them to the surface - where they can be extracted. This allows for separations to be performed in a tube or well plate and without a magnet - simplifying existing approaches.

Microbubbles range in size from nanometers to micrometers. The size depends on the application.

Simplifying separation

Brandon McNaughton, CEO of Akadeum Life Sciences, said it had had different experiences with sample preparation and thought there had to be a better way.

“We want to simplify separation to its simplest form because sample preparation is hard and it’s often the hardest part of whether it is clinical or food testing,” ​he told FoodQualityNews.

“The food testing process is you go get the sample which is pretty quick, then you do sample preparation which can be anywhere from four hours to multiple days, that is the slow part, then you pop it into a machine that gives you an answer. We looked at that and thought the beginning part is fast, the ending part is fast but that middle part is still horrendously slow.

“We wanted to do something about it and that is what led to Akadeum being formed. We thought about ways to do this and we thought of using microbubbles and that came about by asking ourselves what is the best and simplest way we could do this?

“We thought wouldn’t it be nice to make the bacteria float to the top and skim them off. Nobody had done it before but there is no reason it shouldn’t work and we started doing testing and we got great feasibility testing results.” 

Raising funds

The firm raised $1.7m earlier this year with Agilent Technologies joining the funding round. 

Financing was led by BioInfleXion Point Partners, with eLab Ventures Prime Ventures, University of Michigan’s MINTS (Michigan Invests in New Technology Start-ups), Detroit Innovate Fund and local angels.

It has raised more than $3m in total to help it set-up a production and development facility and grow the team from eight people. Co-founder John Younger left his clinical faculty position at the University of Michigan to join the company full time.

Akadeum’s product is based on buoyancy-activated cell sorting (BACS). It uses microscopic microbubbles to capture target cells and float them to the surface of a liquid sample for removal. After removal, cells can be used to perform downstream testing and analysis.

As more cells load onto a bubble, the slower it will rise so separation times will increase.

The platform technology uses glass-shelled bubbles – 1 micron in wall thickness and 16 microns in diameter and the inside is a gas core which makes it float. 

“The process is we mix those bubbles with the sample, so the microbubbles have an antibody on their surface, it latches onto what you want and floats it to the top and that brings it to a spot where you can grab it,” ​said McNaughton.

“You can capture anything from DNA to protein to bacteria, so you engineer the surface of a bubble to go after what you want. For example, in food pathogen testing we’ve put O157 and Salmonella targeted antibodies on the surface and then you mix with your sample and you can concentrate with larger volumes.”

Industry interest and product development

McNaughton said it wants to have an impact on workflows and not just build technology.

“We have met with different contract labs to understand what they do, so they are a potential user,” ​he said.

“We envision this as a related concentration and clean-up method for anything from meat to vegetable testing, so the finished product testing and environmental monitoring of food production.

“We didn’t necessarily think food pathogens would be an application for this, the reason it is, is because of the excitement from industry. We’ve gotten a lot of market pull in food pathogens because there are some real workflow problems that microbubbles can solve.

“If you can have an easy way to concentrate your sample and clean it up, just think about what it does for your time to result and quality of data. That is one of the reasons we raised the money, we proofed out the technology, it worked really well with red blood cells, and we thought now let’s raise the money to set up a few key commercial partnerships with companies that can work with us to bring this to market.”

It is amenable to large volume manual separation of high throughput automated testing, according to McNaughton.

“The reason is you don’t need the magnet separation step, the bubbles don’t care if they are in a 100ml or 1L they behave the same, they go up and concentrate. It is a different force of separation so all these new things are possible that weren’t possible before,” ​he said.

“We have typically done an enrichment first and then we take an aliquot of the enrichment and mix it with the microbubbles and then concentrate from that down to a couple of hundred microliters and put it into a downstream system like PCR. Basically if there is an antibody for it we can put that on the bubble and use our workflow to improve sample preparation.” 

The firm currently has a red blood cell microbubble and a streptavidin microbubble.

“We have additional ones under development and we do custom work,” ​said McNaughton.

“Our pathway is developing bubbles for specific targets and what we are in the process of talking to partners about is an O157 bubble, a Salmonella bubble and a Listeria bubble. We don’t have a timeline for the food ones yet but we plan on releasing our next products by early 2018.” 

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