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NIH Supporting Electronic Neuro Drug Test Technology



19 October 2018. A university spin-off enterprise is receiving funds from National Institute of Mental Health to develop a simple, reliable electronic device to evaluate effects of neurological drugs on brain cells. The technology is being developed by Cytocybernetics Inc. in North Tonawanda, New York, a company founded by medical and biophysics researchers from nearby University at Buffalo.

The $250,000 award from NIMH, part of National Institutes of Health, is advancing work by Cytocybernetics on a simple, reliable, plug-and-play dynamic clamp system to test drugs developed to treat neurological disorders like epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease for adverse effects on nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. A dynamic clamp is a device that gauges electrical activity of individual cells by measuring their electro-physiological signals, in this case from the synapses or electrical junctions of neurons. These physiological signals can then be captured, transmitted, and processed as electronic signals on computer systems.

Up to now, says Cytocybernetics, dynamic clamp devices lack the stability and reliability to be useful in day-to-day work of researchers or physicians. In the new project, the company plans to further develop its dynamic clamp system to provide the simplicity and reliability needed for real-time electro-physiological cell signaling. Cytocybernetics says the dynamic clamp system being developed provides measures of both electric voltage and calcium signaling, offering a higher-quality output. And these more reliable signals allow for use of more sophisticated statistical modeling techniques known as Markov models that calculate probabilities of events in dynamically changing environments.

Cytocybernetics plans to apply this technology to evaluate drugs for neurological conditions for possible adverse effects on neurons in the brain. In previous work, the company designed a system for  screening drug candidates for their potential harm to the heart from adverse side effects, problems usually revealed in clinical trials. As reported by Science & Enterprise in January, the company’s technology tests the effects of drugs on human cardiac myocytes, heart muscle cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells, also known as adult stem cells taken from existing human tissue instead of embryos. The system sends a synthetic electronic current through the whole heart muscle cells produced in the lab that the company says gives a more complete assessment of a new drug’s effects on the heart than most other preclinical testing devices.

The new NIMH award funds a 1-year project to further develop and test the feasibility of Cytocybernetics’ dynamic clamp system. The company proposes advancing the dual-signal — electric voltage and calcium — signal detection device, which would be digitally controlled for improved stability. The project also calls for developing a library of correcting background currents to also provide more stability.

Cytocybernetics’ CEO Glenna Bett, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Buffalo says in a university statement that the system, “will enable neuroscientists to determine specific details of how drugs interact with neurons and affect their electrical behavior.” She adds that the company’s work with neurons will target an “important step in the drug development pipeline: studying how a drug works, and enabling scientists to more fully characterize early-stage candidate drugs with potential in neuroscience.”

The grant was awarded under NIH’s Small Business Innovation Research program that sets aside funding for small, early-stage businesses in the health care and life science fields. In the last (2018) fiscal year, NIH channeled more than $1 billion into its small business set-aside programs.

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