RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Who knew that the chlorophyll greening the trees of spring and light-absorbing bacteria hold keys to new tools for understanding how the human immune system works?

NIRvana Sciences

That’s nature’s inspiration for the development of new bacteriochlorins and chlorins (dyes) that can be used in marking cells under analysis in flow cytometry.

NIRvana Sciences, Inc., developer of synthetic dyes used in staining cells for analysis by flow cytometry, announced that it has been awarded a $3 Million Phase 2b Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This multi-year grant, “New Class of Bright, Sharp, Tunable Near-Infrared Fluorophores for Flow Cytometry,” will be used to accelerate development and commercialization of a new class of fluorescent dyes that will increase the performance capabilities of flow cytometers.

Lasers, detectors, reagents, oh my!

Flow cytometry is a heavily used instrumentation platform for understanding our body’s immune system. It involves running a prepared heterogeneous sample of cells in a single-file line past laser beams. Detectors record and send information about how the light is scattered, which the computer converts into histogram or dot plots researchers use to analyze data about the size and shape of the cells. By labeling cells with fluorescent reagents – dyes or stains known as fluorophores – researchers can use flow cytometry to collect additional information about the types of cells from the re-emission of light that occurs when the fluorophores are excited by the laser beams.

NIRvana photo

Running analytics at NIRvana

NIRvana anticipates that, with its new dyes under development, researchers and clinicians will be able to run more-complex experiments. This will enable them to develop a better understanding of how our immune system fights infectious diseases and cancers, ultimately leading to the faster development of new, more-effective vaccines and drugs.

“NIRvana Sciences is very proud that NIAID sees the potential in our dyes for advancing infectious disease research, and that they also see the greater positive impact to the broader field of life sciences,” said CEO Russell Thomas.

“Our novel synthetic chemistry platform, combined with our ability to tune the spectral features of our dyes, makes it highly unique in creating many new dye colors. Additionally, we look forward to using this grant to complete development and scale-up of our chemistry for commercial sales to reagent companies.”

Analysis possible from many kinds of specimens

The use of flow cytometry has grown substantially in recent decades. Its uses include analysis of the immune-related observable characteristics of cells (immunophenotyping) from a variety of specimens, including whole blood, bone marrow, serous cavity fluids, cerebrospinal fluid, urine and solid tissues. In addition to research applications, it is widely used in the diagnosis and clinical monitoring of leukemia, lymphoma and HIV.

Interestingly, this research evolved from more than two decades of research at North Carolina State University and with collaborators in understanding the science behind photosynthesis.

NCSU spin-out Nirvana Sciences raises $785,000, wants more

NIRvana is based upon research licensed from NCSU, boosted by a $50,000 company inception loan from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in 2014. In 2015, NCBiotech awarded Nirvana a $250,000 Small Business Research Loan. It’s working to complete its Series B funding round to expand its business and is hoping for an exit in the next two years. In addition to support from NIH and NCBiotech, NIRvana has also received support from angel investors in North and South Carolina, NC IDEA and Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network.

In November, the company moved into a new facility at Alexandria Innovation Center in Research Triangle Park, to support further expansion of the company’s chemistry efforts.

The NIH SBIR program funds early-stage small businesses that are seeking to commercialize innovative biomedical technologies. This competitive program helps small businesses participate in federal research and development, develop life-saving technologies and create jobs.

The objective of this SBIR Phase 2b is to continue R&D of its bacteriochlorin dyes and support significant commercialization efforts. It is, in essence, an extension of NIRvana’s previous Phase 2 grant and focuses on expanding the portfolio of dyes and scaling chemistry to produce larger, production-size lots.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center