In response to emailed questions, Cellino Biotech CEO and Co-founder Dr. Nabiha Saklayen, talked about the formation of the company and its goal to make stem cell therapies more accessible for patients.
Why did you start this company?
I see a huge need to develop a technology platform to enable the manufacture of cell therapies at scale. We recently closed a $16 million seed financing round led by Khosla Ventures and The Engine at MIT, with participation from Humboldt Fund. Cellino is on a mission to make personalized, autologous cell therapies accessible for patients. Stem cell-derived regenerative medicines are poised to cure some of the most challenging diseases within this decade, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, and heart disease. Patient-specific cells provide the safest, most effective cures for these indications. However, current autologous processes are not scalable due to extensive manual handling, high variability, and expensive facility overhead. Cellino’s vision is to make personalized regenerative medicines viable at large scale for the first time.
How did you meet your co-founders?
I met my co-founder Marinna Madrid in my Ph.D. research group. We had worked together for many years and had a fantastic working relationship. I then met our third co-founder Matthias Wagner through a friend. Matthias had built and run three optical technology companies in the Boston area and was looking to work with a new team. I was thrilled when we decided to launch the startup together at our second meeting. Matthias built the first Cellino hardware systems in what I like to call Matthias’ “garage.” In parallel, I was doing hundreds of expert interviews with biologists in academia and industry, and it started to narrow down our potential applications very quickly. Marinna was doing our first experiments with iPSCs. We iterated rapidly on building new versions of the hardware based on the features that were important to industry experts, such as single-cell precision and automation. It’s incredible to witness our swift progress as a team.
What specific need or pain point are you seeking to address in healthcare/life sciences?
In general, autologous therapies are safer for patients because they do not require immunosuppression. The next iteration of cell therapies would use patient-specific stem cells banked ahead of time. Anytime a patient needs new cells, such as blood cells, neurons, or skin cells, we would generate them from a stem cell bank.
Today, patient-specific stem cell generation is a manual and artisanal process. A highly skilled scientist sits at a bench, looks at cells by eye, and removes unwanted cells with a pipette tip. Many upcoming clinical trials are using manual processes to produce stem cells for about ten to twenty patients.
At Cellino, we are converging different disciplines to automate this complex process. We use an AI-based laser system comes to remove any unwanted cells. By making stem cells for every human in an automated, scalable way, we are working towards our mission at Cellino to democratize personalized regenerative medicine.
What does your technology do? How does it work?
Cellino’s platform combines label-free imaging and high-speed laser editing with machine learning to automate cell reprogramming, expansion, and differentiation in a closed cassette format, enabling thousands of patient samples to be processed in parallel in a single facility.
In general, autologous, patient-specific stem cell-derived therapies do not require immunosuppression and are safer for patients. Today, patient-specific stem cells are made manually, by hand. To scale the stem cell generation process, Cellino converges different disciplines to automate this complex process. We train machine learning algorithms to characterize cells before our AI-based laser system removes any unwanted cells. By making stem cells for every human in an automated, scalable way, our mission at Cellino is to democratize personalized regenerative medicine. That’s why our vision statement is “Every human. Every cell.”
What’s your background in healthcare? How did you get to where you are today?
When I arrived at Harvard University for my Ph.D. in physics, I wanted to be closer to real-world applications. Biology is inherently complex and beautiful, and I was interested in developing new physics-based tools to engineer cells with precision. During my Ph.D., I invented new ways to edit cells with laser-based nanomaterials. I collaborated with many brilliant biology groups at Harvard, including the Rossi, Scadden, and Church labs. Working closely with them convinced me that lasers offer a superior solution to editing cells with high precision. That realization compelled me to launch Cellino.
Do you have clinical validation for your product?
Our immediate goal for the next year is to show that our platform can produce personalized, high-quality, R&D-grade stem cells for different patients, which has not been established in an automated manner in the regenerative medicine industry so far. There is significant patient-to-patient variability in manual cell processing, which we eliminate with our platform.
Photo: Urupong, Getty Images