UOttawa startup gets $4M funding boost for technology that curbs 'freezer burn' in stem cell tissue

PanTHERA founders
PanTHERA founders Jason Acker (left) and Robert Ben launched the company about four years ago. Photo courtesy GlycoNet

A biotech startup co-founded in Ottawa has landed millions of dollars in new funding for its pioneering solution that helps preserve human cells used in next-generation medical research.

PanTHERA Cryosolutions says it’s secured a $4-million investment from a pair of U.S.-based firms, Washington state-based BioLife Solutions and New York’s Casdin Capital, to help get its system ready for market over the next two years. In exchange, BioLife will receive exclusive worldwide marketing and distribution rights to PanTHERA’s products for use in its cell and gene therapy applications.

Founded four years ago by University of Ottawa chemistry professor Robert Ben and University of Alberta researcher Jason Acker, PanTHERA makes small organic molecules that slow down the buildup of ice ​– known as recrystallization ​– that occurs when biological material used in the fields of cell therapy and regenerative medicine is frozen.

Scientists have been freezing cells and tissues for decades to preserve them for research into therapies for a wide range of diseases, explained Ben, who specializes in synthetic organic and medicinal chemistry. 

Protective agents such as glycerol are used to prevent the cells from drying out in the freezing and thawing process, he said. But that process “is kind of hit and miss,” Ben noted in a recent post on uOttawa’s website.

Preventing cellular damage

“We might freeze 100,000 cells, but only 25,000 will survive and be viable for research or clinical applications,” he said, likening the process to “freezer burn” that changes the structure ​– and subsequently the taste – of ice cream that’s been stored for too long. 

“That’s because up to 80 per cent of the cellular damage that happens during freezing is due to the uncontrolled growth of ice. Since current cryoprotectant solutions don’t address this problem, our returns, measured in cell recovery and function, are quite dismal.”

PanTHERA’s technology also allows cells to survive at higher temperatures than traditional methods, making it easier to store and ship them to remote locations.

“Small ice crystals are innocuous,” Ben said. “They’re like grains of sand on a Caribbean beach. They’re so small that they mould to your body and you can lay comfortably on the beach for an entire day. Now, let’s say those grains of sand were replaced by gravel or pebbles. That’s a lot less comfortable. Our cryopreservation technology prevents ice crystals from growing too large for comfort.”

For the past 10 months, Ben and his team have been working on a new class of compounds that can protect proteins and viruses. They’re now in the process of proving that the technology can preserve COVID testing materials and RNA-based vaccines.

“Our molecules are unique because, unlike conventional cryoprotectants, they prevent all that cellular damage caused by ice,” Ben said. “In the end, we recover more cells, they’re healthier and more functional. There is nothing else like it out there.”