Get­ting Ph.D.s out of the mouse labs

A startup aims to take hu­mans out of labs that test drugs on mice Can soft­ware re­place “a cu­ri­ous per­son ob­serv­ing first­hand”?

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS - Bob Parks

Much of the ground­work for im­por­tant new drugs starts with tests con­ducted on lab mice, of which there are an es­ti­mated 100 mil­lion around the world. The Ph.D.s and tech­ni­cians who ob­serve them of­ten spend their time on rote tasks that a Sil­i­con Val­ley startup called Vium wants to au­to­mate.

Co-founders Ti­mothy Robert­son, a physi­cist, and Joe Betts-Lacroix, an in­ven­tor who has sold in­ven­tions to Google, started Vium in 2013 with a mission to up­date mouse labs us­ing cheap sen­sors, deep learn­ing soft­ware, and vir­tu­ally no hu­mans. “We de­rived more data and bet­ter-qual­ity data with­out ex­pos­ing the mice to the stress of hu­man con­tact,” says Robert­son, who is also chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer.

Vium’s 18,000-square-foot lab in Mil­pi­tas, Calif., is dimly lit in red light that mice can’t de­tect, and al­most to­tally silent. The only sound you hear is the faint rus­tle of mice mov­ing about in their rows of cages. Each cage is il­lu­mi­nated by LED spot­lights—white for day­time and in­frared for night. In tra­di­tional labs, hu­mans reg­u­larly per­form tests on the mice and record pe­ri­odic ob­ser­va­tions. In the Vium lab, an ar­ray of sen­sors, in­clud­ing tiny, high­def­i­ni­tion cam­eras wired above the cages, col­lect phys­i­o­log­i­cal data and track be­hav­ior. That data are then fed into an al­go­rithm that de­liv­ers real-time read­ings on the an­i­mals’ well-be­ing. Re­ports show be­hav­ior pat­terns such as lethargy or clumsy walk­ing, but hu­mans will still clean cages.

Over the past two years, Vium has raised al­most $30 mil­lion from ven­ture cap­i­tal firms, in­clud­ing Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. The idea is that an en­tirely au­to­mated sys­tem can speed up test­ing and cut the costs of bring­ing a drug to mar­ket. In­vestors are hop­ing Vium can poach phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal clients from so-called con­tract re­search or­ga­ni­za­tions, or CROs, mouse-for-hire labs that earned about $6 bil­lion last year.

Vium ex­ec­u­tives ar­gue that many CROs have cum­ber­some pro­ce­dures and rigid re­port­ing prac­tices that pro­vide data only at the end of a sci­en­tific test. Vium in­tends to make setup as easy as re­serv­ing server space on Ama­zon Web Ser­vices. Cus­tomers sim­ply pro­vide their credit card, fill in a few web forms, and then mail or de­liver their drug com­pounds to

Vium’s lab. Once test­ing be­gins, cus­tomers can view data on their phones or lap­tops al­most im­me­di­ately.

Ken­neth Kaitin, di­rec­tor of the Tufts Cen­ter for the Study of Drug De­vel­op­ment, is skep­ti­cal about Vium’s abil­ity to lower costs. “The bar­ri­ers to faster drug de­vel­op­ment aren’t in pre­clin­i­cal,” he says. “All of the enor­mous in­ef­fi­cien­cies—and costs—are in tri­als with hu­man sub­jects.” Yet Vium in­vestor (and for­mer Pfizer CEO) Jef­frey Kindler says he’s bet­ting a smarter pre­clin­i­cal stage is valu­able. “The ear­lier in the drug de­vel­op­ment process that you pre­dict how the drug will per­form in hu­mans, the bet­ter,” he says. “It al­lows you to fail quickly, ter­mi­nate pro­grams, or re­design them.” He cred­its Vium for tak­ing a fresh look at the mouse re­search in­dus­try, es­pe­cially at prob­lems with hu­man in­ter­ven­tion. “What these guys have done is take the sub­jec­tiv­ity out of an­i­mal mod­els.”

Most of the work Vium aims to au­to­mate is done by post­doc­toral stu­dents such as Me­gan Tipps, a Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota at Twin Cities re­searcher who con­ducts ad­dic­tion stud­ies. Tipps says mice gen­er­ally adapt to be­ing han­dled by hu­mans and ques­tions an al­go­rithm’s abil­ity to re­place the hu­man el­e­ment. “I don’t know that there will ever be a re­place­ment for a well-trained, cu­ri­ous per­son ob­serv­ing first­hand.”

So far, clients in­clude Ab­bVie, a $23 bil­lion phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal company de­vel­op­ing a hepati­tis drug, a Har­vard re­searcher test­ing an anti-ag­ing treat­ment, and a drug-dis­cov­ery startup run by for­mer Prince­ton re­searcher Ethan Perl­stein. “We had been work­ing with a tra­di­tional CRO, where the tech­ni­cians were phys­i­cally pulling the an­i­mals out once a day to weigh them,” says Perl­stein. “With Vium, you have a scale built right into the cage and other fea­tures to mon­i­tor them 24/7. Per­fect!” Perl­stein be­lieves re­mov­ing the hu­man fac­tor “goes a long way to mak­ing stud­ies re­pro­ducible.”

The proof will come as more clients use Vium’s sys­tem and pub­lish their data.

In­stead of hu­mans, Vium uses tiny sen­sors and high-def­i­ni­tion cam­eras to ob­serve lab mice

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