#BIO2016 Spotlight: Bell Biosystems – Bay Area Biotech Separates Itself From the Pack

Bell Biosystems (BellBio) is a biotechnology company based in San Francisco whose vision is to pioneer the use of synthetic organelles to accelerate product development through discovery, innovation and collaboration. The company has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by the CLSA and featured two years ago by the San Francisco Business Times as one of the “six biotechs on the cusp of something big.”  Bell Biosystems combines expertise in stem cell research, cell biology, oncology, biomedical imaging and molecular biology, and their vision is to create tools that accelerate the “bench-to-bedside” progress of innovations in oncology and cell therapy research.

Caleb Bell, CEO

Ahead of the BIO Convention on June 6-9, we find out more about what’s going on with the company from CEO Caleb Bell and its plans going forward:

How did BellBio come about?

CB: While finishing my PhD in Chemistry at Stanford — where I studied magnetic effects in biology and imaging techniques to measure these effects — I discovered what would become the core platform technology behind Bell Biosystems. At that time, my brother Dan (BellBio’s cofounder) and I were discussing the tech and implications, and critically, what was the fastest path to get some experimental data on the concept. I had experience with starting businesses (two restaurants and an events production company) as had Dan, who also had a business degree. It seemed to us that the fastest path was a startup, so we formed the company and set off.

What is possibly the biggest misconception about what you do?

CB: Oftentimes people will think that we are a company developing a therapeutic cell for a particular disease such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or acute myocardial infarction. But rather, we have a solution that, once paired with the therapeutic cell, has the power to transform the way cell therapy treatments are performed today. Magnelle-powered cell therapies will provide actionable and insightful information such as the precise location and fate of transplanted therapeutic cells. This will lead to safer, more effective, and more available treatments for diseases that today have no cure or bleak options.

You mentioned “Magnelle-powered cell therapies” – what is that?

CB: Magnelles are living contrast agents that enable researchers to precisely locate Magnelle-labeled cells in the body using standard magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) instruments. This solves current technical and regulatory hurdles for the growing cell therapy sector; specifically addressing FDA guidance that emphasizes the need for more effective cell tracking. In order to do good with therapeutic cells, you need to get the right cell in the right place—our technology lets you know if your cells are in the right place by MRI cell tracking. We create Magnelles the same way nature created the mitochondria or chloroplast from free-living bacteria. Magnelles are naturally magnetic, non-pathogenic bacteria that we put into cells and their natural magnetism creates the MRI beacon allowing the labeled cells to be tracked.

Image Caption: Left: Zoomed in image of a single Magnelle living contrast agent. Center: Human embryonic stem cell derived cells labeled with Magnelle reagents (green:Phalloidin, blue:DAPI, red: Magnelle reagents). Right: 5×104 human mesenchymal stem cells labeled with Magnelle reagents and injected into murine flank muscle (circled). Cells were detected using a T2-weighted pulse sequence in a 7 Tesla MRI and appear as a region of dark contrast.

What separates you from competitors or others in your focus? 

CB: Well, generally there are three existing approaches to tracking cells; pathology, reporter genes, and contrast agents. Pathology is dissection (autopsy in humans) and, while highly accurate, it is expensive, time consuming and does not provide you information prior to death–a key issue for medical applications. Reporter genes are very useful on the lab bench, but have penetration depth issues and require genetic engineering, both of which limit the translational value or ability to be used in the clinic. The final method is to embed synthetic particles for tracking (nano-magnets for MRI, dye for optical tracking, radio tracer for PET, etc.). Unfortunately, many of these the particles remain in the body even after the cell they were originally in has died – which means the tracking signal is still “on” or visible even when the cell is gone, which gives an erroneous readout known as a false positive. We have shown that due to the “biologic” nature of Magnelles, they are cleared when cells die, which solves the false positive problem. Magnelle labeling does not involve genetic engineering either so those limitations are also removed by using our technology.

What have been some of the biggest benefits to being in the Bay Area?

CB: Well, there are so many. In a word, I might say “access.” The Bay Area is loaded, to the point where – at arm’s length – we have access to all of the resources needed to make an early stage life science company succeed: Direct access to top talent, expertise, capital, facilities, and resources. It takes a village to raise a company, and in the Bay Area that ethos is part of our DNA. One of my mentors told me once: “Strive to only make original mistakes.” This means get advice from people who have already made those mistakes. In this area we are blessed with an abundance of seasoned leaders who have “been there and done that” — board members, formal and informal advisors, key collaborators, key partners and more — and together we are building Bell Biosystems to disruptively advance the practice of cell therapy.

What do you hope to achieve while at BIO this year?

CB: BIO is always such a great gathering. It’s in San Francisco this year, and I am on the Host Committee so it has been very fun seeing all the efforts coming together for this event. We definitely see BIO as one of the best opportunities to spread the word and raise awareness about what our company is doing. This year in particular, anyone following regenerative medicine knows the increased importance the FDA has placed on effective cell tracking. This being the case, we will definitely be talking with companies that are looking for a means to demonstrate such effectiveness, which wesdffg are positioned to provide; so for us, this year, BIO is really a perfect venue and opportunity for us to engage and ultimately partner with such companies, adding them to our village.

Based on where things stand today, what is your vision for the next phase of your company and what are the next most crucial steps on the horizon?

CB: Our vision is to disruptively change the practice of cell therapy through Magnelle-powering, which allows the location and viability of these cells to be non-invasively monitored using MRI, and in our next phase, we will turn the corner from preclinical validation to clinical utilization. In terms of where we are now, we have established a good presence in the preclinical research market with a selected group of external users in the US, Europe and Asia obtaining great results using Magnelles to track their cells. This beta program gets our technology in the hands of high profile researchers, demonstrates market traction, and positions us well for for clinical developments. In the short term we are expanding our safety and toxicity profile for Magnelles. Our initial studies show that Magnelles are well tolerated systemically. The expanded profile will define in which indications Magnelles are most useful – for use across the full range of cell therapies, or specific indication. From a business perspective, this equips us to formalize partnerships with cell therapy developers to jointly develop Magnelle-powered cell therapies. We know success is best achieved through such collaboration, and only in doing so, can we accelerate the development of therapies – and their approval – to unleash the full potential of regenerative medicines.

More information about BellBio:

BellBio’s Technology Overview

BellBio’s Cell Tracking Solutions

BioCentury Article

BellBio White Paper on Magnelle® Cell Tracking Solutions

Lab Location: 953 Indiana Street, San Francisco