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The VACS technology and founding of Cellular Highways

Inventing a high-throughput cell sorting instrument has been a long-standing goal of many scientists: such an instrument would have the potential to transform a wide range of life science applications. But the microfluidic cell sorting technologies developed during the past decade have hardly challenged, let alone displaced, jet-in-air electrostatic droplet sorting, the technology behind FACS, which was invented in Mack Fulwyler in 1965.

The Life Science Group at TTP plc has worked on cell sorting problems for several years, applying a range of droplet-handling microdevices to life science instrumentation. In 2015, we realised the huge potential of cell therapy and that a high-throughput and fully-enclosed cell sorting instrument could enable many cell therapy approaches that are not feasible with existing technology.

Our push towards an instrument that would enable such applications started in earnest in 2016. Drawing on our experience with jet-in-air and alternative microfluidic applications, we decided to simplify the fluidics as much as possible, to ensure that the envisaged instrument could be fully automated and the fluidics supplied in a sterile cartridge.

We also decided to avoid specialist materials and difficult-to-manufacture actuators in order to create a truly low-cost chip. Finally, to achieve high-throughput sorting, we wanted to invent a technology that could be multiplexed to deliver far higher sort rates than previously thought possible, for new applications like cell therapy.

In 2017, we came up with the idea of VACS: vortex actuated cell sorting. Most of the year was spent in the lab, making and testing successive generations of the microfluidic chip that implements this idea, and improving our instrumentation. By the end of 2017, we had found a system that worked.

In 2018 we got our first results on human blood samples, with collaborators at GSK (manuscript now under review as of early 2019). We also got our first feasibility results with a prominent cell therapy partner, showing at, an experimental scale, that the VACS technology is capable of sorting cells in a CART manufacturing process, without loss of cell viability or functionality.

In April 2019, Cellular Highways is becoming a new company, spun out from TTP, with a seed fund to bring VACS into its first product: Highway-1, and lead its commercialisation.

We are interested in hearing from anyone with an interest in our journey. Please use our Contact form to get in touch.

About our backer, TTP

TTP plc (The Technology Partnership), founded in 1987 and based near Cambridge, UK, is one of the world’s leading high-tech product development organisations. TTP Group has spun out successful companies in industries such as life science instrumentation, digital communications and printing.

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