From a serendipitous meeting of minds to laser-enabled precision, Cellino is leveraging AI and pluripotent stem cells for longevity. We speak to CEO and Co-founder Dr Nabiha Saklayen.
A couple of months ago, we covered Cellino‘s $16 million raise in seed venture capital and its plans to develop its AI-guided laser platform in order to automate and scale autologous cell-and tissue-based therapies using pluripotent stem cells.
Longevity.Technology: Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) have a versatile, almost magical ability to become anything; they can be triggered to become beta islet cells for diabetes treatment, or neurons for neurological treatment or blood cells, in order to generate new cancer-free blood for leukaemia sufferers. So far, so clever; however, all magical things need a Sorting Hat, and it falls to scientists to go through the labour-intensive process of inspecting iPSCs, and manually weeding out those that don’t make the grade.
Enter Cellino; its automated process can generate autologous iPSCs at scale, a proposition so eye-catching that its seed round investor syndicate was co-led by The Engine and Khosla Ventures, and boasted participation from Humboldt Fund and 8VC. We were keen to learn more, so we caught up with Nabiha Saklayen, PhD, CEO & Co-Founder of Cellino.
Dr Nabiha Saklayen says that Cellino is the result of a series of serendipitous interactions with the right people at the right time.
“Towards the end of my PhD at Harvard University, I had the incredible opportunity to test out the laser-based cell editing techniques I had invented with brilliant biologists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Harvard Medical School,” she says. “It was a pivotal moment in my journey: my collaborators saw incredible promise in the technology and encouraged me to consider entrepreneurship.”
This was an inflection point. There seemed to be a real opportunity to use laser-enabled precision to increase accuracy in complex biological processes, and Saklayen brought her lab-mate, Marinna Madrid, and Matthias Wagner, a serial entrepreneur in the optical technology space, on board. Forming an “instant connection”, Cellino was born.
“iPSCs have tremendous promise in longevity and we are just starting to scratch the surface of that massive potential…”
“The Engine wrote our first check a few months later and we were off to the races,” recalls Saklayen. “I named Cellino after a star in the Pleiades star cluster due to my childhood fascination with all things space. Cellino also merges the words “cell” and “innovation” to capture our innovative spirit.”
The spirit of innovation is evident in the company and its research. Applying innovation to iPSCs could allow them to be leveraged for direct therapies, as well as harnessing their potential for toxicity testing and drug screening, speeding up clinical trials and getting new treatments out of the lab and onto the shelf.
Why are induced pluripotent stem cells so important?
“iPSCs are incredibly important to longevity medicine,” says Saklayen. “They have the potential to be differentiated towards hundreds of different cell types, which opens up a world of possibilities in discovering new drugs and developing cell-based therapies for longevity. Cellino focuses on developing autologous iPSC-based cell therapies with major applications in age-related macular degeneration, Parkinson’s, and diabetes, to name a few diseases that affect human healthspan. iPSCs have tremendous promise in longevity and we are just starting to scratch the surface of that massive potential.”
Also Cellino has not yet disclosed its specific therapeutic indication focus, Saklayen notes there is “significant interest” in degenerative diseases and cell types where autologous cells are the only viable solution for patients in need.
This year the team is focused on automating their system to generate R&D-grade patient-specific iPSCs at scale, demonstrating that the platform cells that are both personalised and high-quality. This is something which has not been established in an automated manner in the regenerative medicine industry so far, says Saklayen, but the Cellino platform eliminates the patient-to-patient variability that occurs in in manual cell processing.
We are excited to share our massively scalable technology with the industry as it opens the door to developing patient-specific regenerative medicines for all…
In parallel, they are designing the closed system for scalable clinical production. “We are in deep discussions with cell therapy partners worldwide to commercialize our platform and approach in a scalable manner,” says Saklayen. “If autologous iPSC-derived cells could be made at a massive scale, they would be a great option for patients as they reduce or eliminate the need for immunosuppression, leading to better long-term patient outcomes. We are excited to share our massively scalable technology with the industry as it opens the door to developing patient-specific regenerative medicines for all – and we are always open to hearing from investors interested in our technology platform.”
Integrating machine learning, single-cell laser processing and robotics in one platform makes for an interesting combination. “One of the challenges was making sure to build a multi-disciplinary team that is unified across distinct disciplines,” says Saklayen.
She explains: “Embarking on a mission to solve a problem of significant magnitude requires creative thinking. Cellino’s creative core stems from our commitment to converging powerful technologies to solve pressing, global challenges. Our version of convergence is the integration of engineering, physical sciences, computation, and life sciences. Everyone on the Cellino team speaks a different technical language, brings a unique skill set to the table, and has different life experiences. It’s what makes our team unique. We spend significant effort on strengthening our communication skills to build a strong, convergent platform. Convergence is one of the core pillars of Cellino.”
It is clear that the philosophy of democratised healthcare is important to Saklayen. “As more scientist-inventors like myself become entrepreneurs, we begin to have an important say in how our technologies are applied to improving patient lives,” she says. “That is a powerful movement that will bring about change in a meaningful way for patients. I was born to Bangladeshi parents and had a colorful upbringing in different countries: Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Sri Lanka.
“I have seen inequity in healthcare the world over and increasing accessibility to healthcare is important to me. I feel blessed to be in an industry that does so much good for patients. I’m thrilled to be a part of the dialogue around democratizing healthcare. And yes, I encourage everyone to get involved to increase access for patients.”
Cellino’s – and Dr Sakalayen’s – vision is to enable the manufacturing of autologous cell therapies at scale, so biotech companies can develop autologous stem cell-derived therapies that do not require immunosuppression and are safer for patients. The next iteration of cell therapies would use patient-specific stem cells banked ahead of time and whenever a patient needed new cells, such as blood cells, neurons, or skin cells, the Cellino team could generate them from a stem cell bank.
“Today, patient-specific stem cell generation is a manual and artisanal process,” explains Sakaleyn. “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-powered laser system to edit and remove unwanted cells. By making stem cells for every human in an automated, scalable way, our mission at Cellino is to democratize personalized regenerative medicine.”