Ping Yeh fought a tough battle with blood cancer and survived, but the effects linger five years later.
Yeh is cancer-free, but he still deals with side effects like neuropathy from his first dose of chemotherapy, which was a high-potency regimen that did lots of damage but had almost no positive effect because his body, it turned out, was resistant to the drugs.
“Luckily I survived the cancer, and the treatment, but the question remained: Why was this a trial-and-error situation? Why did I have to go and take this drug that could have killed me?” Yeh said. With his background in nanotechnology, Yeh said he knew that potentially damaging medical experiments — what he calls “guinea pig medicine” — didn’t have to take place inside the patient.
He went on to co-found a company called Stemonix, which has capitalized on know-how in nanotech, chemistry, physics, statistics and advanced manufacturing to invent a proprietary way to create and test chemical reactions between drugs and human cells outside of the body.
“That is the future we see, and are trying to create. And we are laying the foundation by first addressing the market for designing drugs,” Yeh said, noting that Stemonix is already working with pharmaceutical companies that want to use its technology for research on potential drug compounds.
Success has come quickly for Stemonix.
Launched in 2014, the company worked for a year perfecting its idea and forming its team, and then secured an investment and physical space from TreeHouse Health, a med-tech incubator in Minneapolis overlooking Loring Park. Stemonix is moving out of TreeHouse and into a 15,000-square-foot facility in Maple Grove that will have enough space for its 30 employees. The company also has research space in California.
Yeh says the privately held company has attracted more than $11 million in investments so far, including a recent $6 million series A funding round. Stemonix is working with Pairnomix, a precision-medicine firm with offices in Maple Grove that was spun out of Upsher-Smith last year, focusing on treatments for epilepsy. Stemonix is also in early stages of working with Minneapolis biotech firm Bio-Techne.
Last year Stemonix was the grand prize winner in the Minnesota Cup, an entrepreneurship competition organized by the Carlson School of Management.
And last month, Stemonix received a Red Herring Top 100 North America award from tech-news company Red Herring.
“Every year, Red Herring North America Top 100 selects an amazing group of disruptive companies. But a few carry an exceptional weight because they will change the world. Stemonix is one of them,” Red Herring Chairman Alex Vieux said in a news release. “Stemonix will revolutionize drug discovery research and has pioneered a novel approach.”
Yeh’s original idea for developing a personalized test for chemo toxicity still lies in the future, but today the company is focused on nurturing relationships with pharma companies interested in drug discovery.
Stemonix products include its microHeart and microBrain platforms, which consist of standard-looking biopharma assay plates, with either 96 or 384 slots designed to hold globs of stem cells that rapidly evolve into tissue that closely resembles normal human heart and brain tissue. The stem cells are derived from adult tissue, not human embryos.
Unlike other ways of rapidly creating tissue from stem cells, microHeart trays produce tissue that contains important proteins found in native tissues that can spontaneously beat and respond to electrical stimulation, among other key biologic features. The microBrain platform grows mature brain tissue with “electro-active neuronal cells” that can spontaneously create “functional neuronal circuitry and synapses,” the company’s website says.
Stemonix also offers “Discovery as a Service,” or DaaS, in which it will create custom assays and do tests for potential toxicities and chemical interactions, and high-volume manufacturing platforms for stem cells culled from adult human blood and tissue.
The ideas rest on two key scientific breakthroughs. The first came about a decade ago, when Japanese researcher Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and colleagues published Nobel Prize-winning science that showed it was possible to cause adult cells to revert into raw stem cells, which can be regrown into new types of tissue. That meant that a person’s stem cells could be derived from a vial of their own blood, avoiding bioethical concerns about embryonic stem cells.
But in the past, transforming blood into stem cells and then into heart cells yielded a blob of immature cells that lacked the physical structure of adult stem cells, Yeh said. Stemonix figured out how to use nanotechnology to overcome that problem. At the bottom of each of the 384 tiny “wells” in a microBrain kit is a surface that has a pattern visible at the molecular level.
“When you control the microenvironment of the cells, it changes them,” Yeh said. “You can run all sorts of experiments without risking the lives of people.”