BLACKSBURG — Colon cancer cells meandered across a slide under the watch of a microscope in Rafael Davalos’ lab at Virginia Tech last week.
“On,” student researcher Josie Duncan said, as she flipped a switch. The cells suddenly clumped together and froze in place. “And — off.”
Duncan flipped the switch again and the cells resumed their dance across the slide.
When she tunes the machine another way, only certain types of cells, such as aggressive cancer cells, freeze. And with other settings, any number of cell types can be turned on or off with the flip of a switch.
It doesn’t look like much, but the machine, which is about to spin out of Virginia Tech’s labs and into the real world after eight years of development, is sorting live cells in a way that was never possible , Davalos said.
He believes what he has invented could enable new types of research. But he’s a scientist, not a CEO.
That’s where Steve Turner comes in.
The pair met through a mutual contact. Davalos was an academic with an idea he hoped would make an impact on real patients, and Turner was an experienced biotech entrepreneur looking for the next breakthrough around which he could build a startup .
Turner has been here before, spinning out at least seven different companies from universities over the past four decades. He’s worked with Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Iowa, among others.
Three of the companies he created went public and two others have been acquired by larger firms.
Turner first made a name for himself in the biology field by founding a DNA manipulation company in the 1970s.
He left the company in the 1980s, but it later morphed into Life Technologies, went public and was acquired for $13.6 billion in 2014.
Startups are risky, may take years to develop and require a specialized set of skills, Virginia Tech’s Associate Director of Technology Commercialization Grant Brewer said. So the university was happy to license Davalos’ technology to someone like Turner .
Brewer estimates Virginia Tech issues licenses around 30 pieces of technology each year, some to big companies and some to fledgling businesses that are decades away from profits.
Some deals make money, others merely get research out with the hope it will catch on.
The university earns around $2 million each year on licensing and equity from technology transfer, according to data presented to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors this week.
Turner said he believes the cell-sorting device, called Cyto R1, could become a standard piece of equipment in biology laboratories. Should that occur, his Blacksburg-based startup, CytoRecovery, would grow, Virginia Tech would profit from royalties and Davalos would see his invention make a difference .
“Startups can be risky because of all the resources and pitfalls that come with starting a technical venture,” Brewer said. “But there’s also great rewards, especially when you can get them to stay at home in the New River Valley area.”
CytoRecovery was founded in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center this year with two full-time employees: Turner and lead research scientist Alex Hyler.
The company recently manufactured a first generation cell sorter with the hope of selling the device for the first time late next year.
CytoRecovery has also raised about $250,000 from investors, including Shenandoah Valley Angel Investors and Danville-based The Launch Place.
“The only way you can get it to the patient is through having some company license it or something like that,” Davalos said. “It’s very rewarding and nothing beats it, to see that there’s a chance this could actually get out there and help people.”
The device isn’t priced yet, but it will cost less than a typical microscope, according to Turner. It’s easy to use, and fits the way most laboratories already conduct experiments.
“It’s inexpensive, rapid and if only one or two cells of the type you’re looking for are present, you can pull them out,” Turner added.
Scientists have been sorting cells for decades, but until now they’ve had to kill or alter the targets in order to isolate them. Turner said it’s a $1.5 billion industry, and CytoRecovery offers benefits other devices can’t match.
The machine uses specific electric frequencies to entice different types of cells to cling to probes on a microscope slide.
For example, researchers can tune the machine to only freeze aggressive cancer cells and then run a sample from a patient biopsy across the slide. When the researcher flips the switch, the electric probes turn on, the targeted cancer cells cling to the probes and everything else passes through. Eventually, only the targeted cells are left on the slide.
The cells would be unharmed, so scientists could then test different cancer treatments to see how they respond as if they were still inside the patient’s body.
“Cell sorting is not something people go around thinking about every day,” Turner said. “But it’s at the heart of an awful lot of diagnostic medicine and medical research.”
Davalos’ team has been working on the technology for close to a decade, and he’s still helping out as an adviser to CytoRecovery.
But he’s also not going to be tied up pitching his startup to investors for the next 10 years.