Oncode Investigator, Alexander van Oudenaarden, is one of the pioneers in the field of single-cell sequencing. From his lab at the Hubrecht Institute the company Single Cell Discoveries was recently launched with the help of the valorization team of Oncode. This will make single-cell sequencing available for the broader research community.

First Start-up Oncode Institute launched

Hidde Boersma

“Sometimes I am still flabbergasted by the results,” Mauro Muraro, co-founder and CEO of Single Cell Discoveries, talks about single-cell sequencing, a technology making its way into biological research the last couple of years. It has only been 20 years since the first draft of the human genome was published, and since then sequencing has become much cheaper. But until recently thousands of cells were still needed to obtain enough DNA to get a good enough signal for sequencing machines to read. “That meant you had to use a whole lump of a tumour, or a complete biopsy of an organ. We knew that there was heterogeneity within these cells, that their DNA and its expression could differ, but the resolution of existing sequencers simply was too low to do anything with this knowledge.”

“Imagine you want to determine the expression profile of that one stem cell from a population of 1.000 differentiated cells."

Enter single-cell sequencing. With advanced technology it is now possible to barcode the DNA or RNA of single cells and amplify it, so we can analyze the gene expression profile of a single cell. This is extremely useful. “Imagine you want to characterize a tumour to determine which medicine to use to beat it. Before, we could only see the most abundant cell types, but were kept in the blind of the rarer one’s, which could then be able to survive the treatment,” Muraro says. “Or imagine you want to determine the expression profile of that one stem cell from a population of 1.000 differentiated cells. This is all now possible.”

Illustration of how Single Cells can be detected

The Hubrecht Institute was one of the pioneering institutes in the world on single-cell sequencing. It started applying the technique in 2012, and followed this up by automating the single-cell sequencing pipeline. This drew the attention of other researchers, who also wanted single cell-resolution in sequencing. “the machines required to do single-cell sequencing is a big investment and getting it to work properly is hard and takes time,” Muraro says. “So they turned to us, as we working with the technique for quite some time.”. The increased demand for single-cell sequencing experiments led to the establishment of an in-house facility to make the technique available to other groups in the institute.

“But the work load soon became too big,” remembers Judith Vivié, co-founder and COO, who managed the facility from 2016 to 2018. “I worked like crazy, but there was no way no way to do it right. Eventually waiting times at the facility rose to three months, with no sign of abating.” With such a high demand for single-cell sequencing, Vivié and Mauro realized its commercial potential. Early 2018, they brought the idea of starting a company to Alexander van Oudenaarden, director of the Hubrecht Institute and Oncode Investigator. He encouraged Vivié and Muraro and introduced them to the valorization team of Oncode. This way they could exploit the lead they had on this technique and offer a professional service that would benefit a wider research community. For Oncode, it was an opportunity to help create the first Oncode related business venture. With the help of Angus Livingstone, Oncode’s Valorization Director and a veteran in the field of technology transfer, Single Cell Discoveries started their business in May 2018. “Accelerating the transition of research to the market is one of Oncode’s goals”, says Livingstone, “and facilitating the creation of Single Cell Discoveries was an obvious win for us.”

“Accelerating the transition of research to the market is one of Oncode’s goals"

“There are a lot of things you just don't think about as someone working in academia, especially not when you are just continuing a service you are already providing,” Muraro says. Livingstone encouraged Muraro and Vivié to make a company plan for the coming two years, including a timeline of everything they wanted to achieve. “This actually meant extrapolating data points,” Vivié jokes. “And this was something we were capable of doing.” The additional guidance resulted in a very professional company, right from the start.

Launch of Single Cell Discoveries

The Hubrecht, Vivié and Angus drew up a plan for the transition phase moving from an in-house facility to a private company. “For example, the Hubrecht is helping to incubate the company by allowing it to operate within the institute”, says Vivié. “But, after two years we have to fly out, and find our own office space. Not easy, as the market for lab space is almost as difficult as the market for a normal house in Utrecht.” Other issues that were dealt with included the rent for the lab, access to specialized equipment and the terms on who has priority if both Hubrecht and another client want to use the machines. “After all this, getting our company registered at the Chamber of Commerce was the easiest part,” Muraro says.

Only a couple of months in business at the time of writing, orders are already piling up. “Existing customers understand that they now have to pay a bit extra for their inquiries,” Muraro says. “But they get a more streamlined and faster service in return.” Muraro and Vivié are already anticipating their next steps: “We want to further develop the technology and have the ambition to make single-cell sequencing part of the diagnosis and monitoring for all patients in the future. We believe high-resolution biology should benefit all patients.”

Angus Livingstone concludes: “At Oncode we hope this venture is the first of many successful initiatives. Single Cell Discoveries is proof that Oncode can shorten the time to market of new inventions and technologies. This venture is a great example of what can be achieved I this way for the broader research community and patients in our efforts to outsmart cancer and impact lives.”

For more information see: http://www.scdiscoveries.com

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Elize is part of Oncode’s communication team. She has over 10 years of experience in the com-munication industry, both for commercial and non-profit organisations. After obtaining her bache-lor and master degree in communication at Utrecht University, Elize worked as a communication professional at a research institute, PR agency, law firm and internet company. She has a strong focus on external communications and Public Relations. At Oncode - together with her colleagues - Elize produces the monthly newsletters for Oncode Investigators & Researchers and the Oncode digital magazine. She publishes content for the Oncode website and is responsible for all social media channels. She enjoys discussing science with researchers and support them in their outreach.
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