Microscopic ‘test tubes’ aim to revolutionise high-throughput single cell and molecule analysis

Spun-out of the University of Cambridge in 2010, Sphere Fluidics was formed with the help of Cambridge Enterprise to commercialise a unique picolitre droplet technology created by Professors Chris Abell and Wilhelm Huck of the Department of Chemistry. The process creates the equivalent of microscopic ‘test tubes’ known as picodroplets, enabling researchers to carry out large numbers of simultaneous chemical or biological reactions contained within aqueous droplets a fraction of a millilitre in volume.

Sphere Fluidics has created a number of unique products for use in single cell analysis and characterisation and also provides collaborative research and development services in this area. Cambridge Enterprise continues to support Sphere Fluidics as they grow their portfolio, having provided multiple funding rounds throughout the company’s development.

Although recent advances in robotics and high-speed computing have made high-throughput screening of biological reactions feasible, these screening systems had previously been limited to the use of multi-well plates. In some cases, researchers are still tied to manual measurements and procedures, limiting speed, accuracy and reliability. Professors Abell and Huck have developed the next generation of ultra-high-throughput automated screening systems. Their platform is an alternative to existing techniques and promises to increase the rate of analyses 100-fold, while improving both accuracy and reliability, offering greater control and automation, and improved efficiency.

The technology allows vast numbers of parallel experiments to be carried out simultaneously, allowing total control of the reaction environment. Picodroplets, each containing single molecules, cells or organisms, can be generated at a rate of tens of thousands per second. When the picodroplets are merged with others containing, for example, a specific chemical reagent, they act as miniature reaction chambers, each one with a unique set of experimental conditions. The technology has potential uses across a wide variety of fields, including biopharmaceutical discovery, cell therapy engineering and synthetic biology.

Dr Frank Craig began as CEO of Sphere Fluidics in 2010, and the investment from the Discovery Fund supported the company as it began its search for its first clients and additional funding. The company went on to win investment from the Royal Society Enterprise Fund and a research partnership with Pfizer.

In November 2014, Sphere Fluidics was awarded a US patent on their use of novel coating techniques for microfluidic biochip design. In 2015, Sphere Fluidics was named one of the UK’s top 50 disruptive SMEs by Real Business, an award presented to companies that are ‘breaking down barriers, creating innovative products and – most importantly – disrupting previously stagnant industries.’ Sphere Fluidics now has an international IP portfolio of 13 patent families, comprising 55 patents, 25 of which are granted, and is actively in-licensing additional patents in this area.

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