One of the biggest challenges in drug development is getting hold of proteins to see how they interact with certain compounds. While the machinery is available, you need a lot of financing and a big lab to have any hope of extracting proteins.
Four students embarking on their PhDs at Cambridge decided they wanted to solve that problem over a beer back in 2013. They had a simple theory: what if you could 3D print proteins?
Nine years later, the startup they went on to found, Nuclera, is announcing a €38m Series B, with backers including Amadeus Capital Partners, M&G, RT Partners, Future Planet Capital and the American corporation E Ink.
With the new round, Nuclera will be able to launch its desktop e-protein printer to the market.
Why are proteins such a big deal?
Proteins make up a very important part of our cells’ biological processes, and are a structural part of all living orgnaisms.
When proteins misfold, it can lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Other proteins, like JNK, are targeted in cancer treatments. Proteins are also vital in some of the research into longevity.
Drug discovery and synthesising protein research can take weeks, months or even years.
The key to making drug discovery accessible is making proteins accessible
This is where Nuclera wants to make a difference with its desktop bioprinter, which makes it possible for proteins to be printed within 24 hours for the first time.
Michael Chen, Nuclera’s cofounder and CEO, believes it could massively speed up drug discovery and open new avenues of innovation in biotech.
“The key to making drug discovery accessible is making proteins accessible. And so we want our customers to be able to have these bioprinters right at the benchtop to be able to make proteins and, ultimately, characterise proteins and discover drugs against these proteins on a single platform,” Chen says.
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How does it work?
The team at Nuclera was looking for a way to print proteins when they stumbled across digital microfluidic technology. That’s the technology that enables display devices (like Kindles) to mimic the appearance of ordinary ink on paper.
Nuclera started a strategic partnership with E Ink, the corporation that commercialised the technology (Nuclera later acquired a part of E Ink, that had the technology the startup used). In layman's terms, by adding DNA the printer will screen for protein expression. The digital microfluidic technology then translates the digital signals from the DNA into hundreds of nanolitre droplets to produce a purified protein, which it prints.
I think we're the living embodiment of that trend of digitising biology
According to Chen, this is just the beginning.
“Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that is used to treat cancers and other human diseases. Immunotherapy is just a protein that they're getting injected into their body. What if we could use this to manufacture drugs for people in a distributed fashion, not necessarily in a central manufacturing plant, but throughout hospitals, clinics and even in the home environment?” Chen says.
A boom in the bioprinting market
The latest developments in biotechnology, like synthetic DNA, gene editing and sequencing and 3D-printed tissues are opening the field up to investors like never before. Just the other week, the US longevity startup Altos Labs raised a whopping $3bn.
For companies in the biotech 3D-printing space, things are looking up. According to Insight Partners, the market for these devices will triple to $6.6bn by 2028.
Startups in Europe are making inroads: France’s DNA Script, which is printing custom DNA, raised $200m in its Series C round earlier this year, while Swedish Cellink, which has already IPO'd, is 3D printing human organs and tissues. Other companies like Danish Particle3D, Spanish Mimetis and Dutch Xilloc are working on bone printing.
According to Chen, Nuclera is right in the middle of the boom.
“I think we're the living embodiment of that trend of digitising biology because we are actually taking classic display technology and meshing that with biology. Digitising biology doesn't only mean performing biology in a computer; what it means is to make biological wet lab experiments — the things that scientists actually need to do — so much easier, that it’s just like working with a computer.”