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5:05 PM
 | 
Aug 08, 2019
 |  BC Innovations  |  Tools & Techniques

The next frontier for single-cell analysis

How single cells will inform the industry's next generation of therapies

With an explosion in scalability, single-cell analysis has begun to invade every aspect of drug development, with early benefits showing themselves in precision targeting. The field’s next challenge is to integrate a wider array of data types from each cell, which could unlock a trove of actionable insights beyond target discovery.

Instead of mashing up tissue containing a multitude of cell types, researchers are increasingly seeking a more surgical view of biology -- at the level of individual cells.

Analysis of single cells holds promise for untangling complex disease mechanisms to find new targets and biomarkers, identifying handles for cell-specific drug delivery, monitoring therapeutic responses and rationally designing combinations to boost efficacy or stave off resistance.

Development of single-cell techniques began in earnest a decade ago, but only gained momentum in the last few years thanks to parallel advances in the technologies used to process the cells and the computational capacity required to analyze the terabytes of data generated in the experiments.

“We’re reaching a point where single cell analysis is so mature and straightforward that it can be a routine assay.”

Evan Macosko, Harvard Medical School

“We’re reaching a point where single-cell analysis is so mature and straightforward that it can be a routine assay,” Evan Macosko, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and participant of the single-cell consortium Human Cell Atlas, told BioCentury.

RNA sequencing, the most advanced single-cell analysis technique, can now be done in high throughput, and companies are jumping at opportunities to incorporate it into their platforms or to find partners that give them the capability.

In July, for example, single-cell analysis company Celsius Therapeutics Inc. and the Janssen Biotech Inc. unit of Johnson & Johnson partnered to analyze over 200 patient samples in Janssen’s Phase IIa VEGA trial for ulcerative colitis. It’s the newcomer’s first deal and involves an unprecedented number of patient samples for the technique. Celsius launched in 2018 with a $65 million series A led by Third Rock Ventures (see "Single Celsius").

One of the more visible accomplishments for the field came last August when four studies were published across Nature and Cell identifying rare cell types involved in cystic fibrosis and hearing loss. Two of the studies came out of drug companies -- Novartis AG and Decibel Therapeutics Inc. -- putting a bevy of targets and options for precision targeting into their hands.

Single-cell analyses comprise more than just RNA and DNA profiling, however. Coming up behind these techniques are ways to measure chromatin structure, protein expression and cellular phenotypes via imaging.

In an April roundtable discussion, members of BioCentury’s SAB called out single-cell techniques as a white space area that could shape the future of precision medicine (see “A Venture View of Biological White Space”).

The field’s next big leap is likely to come from data...

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