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Randall L. Rasmusson, PhD, and Glenna C. Bett

Randall L. Rasmusson, PhD (left), and Glenna C. Bett, PhD, founded Cytocybernetics, a company testing technology to make preclinical drug trials more efficient. 

UB Spinoff Explores New Drug Safety Screening Method

Published September 21, 2015

Updated November 18, 2015

University at Buffalo spinoff company Cytocybernetics is testing Cybercyte, new biotechnology that could cut in half the time and money needed for preclinical drug trials.

“It’s really Star Trek technology. The electronics essentially become part of the cell and its function. By interacting with the cell during each beat, we can extract much more detailed and reliable information.”
Associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology

The new technology could more quickly bring to market new drugs to treat heartburn, allergies, mental disorders and other maladies. 

Cytocybernetics was founded by Glenna C. Bett, PhD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and Randall L. Rasmusson, PhD, professor of physiology and biophysics.

“Dr. Bett's technique for testing drugs will improve methods for drug safety screening and reduce the cost and time associated with getting new medications to patients in need,” said SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher.

Animal Tissue Not As Reliable As Human Tissue

Pharmaceutical companies spend years and hundreds of millions of dollars only to have a drug fail when it disrupts the electrical activity of the heart and causes heart attacks. 

Until recently, researchers studying a compound’s effect on heart cells relied on limited molecular components or animal heart tissue, which is different enough from human tissue that potentially lethal problems may not be caught until clinical trials. 

Human Cells and Tissue Lack Stability

Technology now exists to create induced pluripotent stem cells — a relatively new type of stem cell made from genetically reprogrammed adult cells — by stripping human donor cells, typically skin, down to stem cell state. They are then rebuilt as heart cells.

The heart cells lack an important electrical current, IK1, which promotes stability in heart muscle. Without it, the cells can spontaneously start beating.

Spontaneous beating can lead to false results during early-stage safety testing that may lead to lengthy and expensive setbacks.

Synthetic Electrical Current Stabilizes Human Cells

Cybercyte solves the spontaneous beating problem by producing a synthetic IK1 with electronics and computers connected to cells.

“It’s really Star Trek technology. The electronics essentially become part of the cell and its function. By interacting with the cell during each beat, we can extract much more detailed and reliable information,” said Bett. 

Cybercyte differentiates between types of muscle cells in the heart that respond differently to stimuli. That differentiation is something existing technology cannot do. 

Winners in 43North Business Plan Competition

In October, Cytocybernetics won $500,000 in the 43North competition, which helps develop emerging businesses.

UB President Satish K. Tripathi congratulated the company and praised it as a “remarkable biotechnology firm.”

“UB is very proud of the leadership role its faculty members, researchers and graduates play in helping to solve critical and emerging problems that society faces, as well as their work that leads to sustained, long-term economic growth in Western New York,” he said. 

Venu Govindaraju, PhD, interim vice president for research and economic development, said that entrepreneurs like Bett and Rasmusson “are solidifying Western New York’s reputation as a world-class research hub for biotechnology and life sciences.”

Extraordinary technologies like theirs are at the forefront of the Buffalo-Niagara region’s economic resurgence, and UB is continuing to partner with Cytocybernetics to help ensure that it becomes a cornerstone in Western New York’s economy, he added.

With $5 million in funding, the 43North contest is part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development plan.

Receiving NIH Award, Tax Incentives, More

Cytocybernetics has received a Small Business Technology Transfer award from the National Institutes of Health for $241,933 and an award from the State University of New York’s Technology Accelerator Fund for $50,000.

The grant money will be used to test Cybercyte against current methods to prove its effectiveness to the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Under START-UP NY, Cytocybernetics is receiving tax incentives and will open in the Sherman Annex on UB’s South Campus. It aims to create internships and hire graduates from UB’s engineering, medicine, management and law programs.

Cytocybernetics has received support from UB’s Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach, participated in the Pre-Seed Workshop hosted by UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences and received funding from the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology.