Scientists in a Harvard University lab developed an imaging technique that allows researchers to peer deep into tissue samples to learn more about the molecules and cellular organization within. That technology now has the backing of two venture capital firms that have funded a company to commercialize the technology.
The Cambridge, MA-based startup, Vizgen, debuted Thursday with a $14 million Series A round of financing led by Arch Venture Partners and Northpond Ventures.
Vizgen was founded by Xiaowei Zhuang, Harvard’s David B. Arnold Professor of Science and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Jeffrey Moffitt, who invented the technology with Zhuang when he was a postdoctoral fellow in her lab, and David Walt, a scientific founder of sequencing giant Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) and other life science companies.
The technology that is the basis of Vizgen is known as MERFISH, short for multiplexed error-robust fluorescence in situ hybridization. Diagnostics companies and others have been using fluorescence in situ hybridization, or FISH, to detect nucleic acid sequences in cells, tissues and tumors for decades.
The MERFISH process, the company says, allows researchers to get down to the subcellular level when it comes to studying individual cells—and the RNAs within—as they are situated within a tissue sample, which can provide essential context as to the cell type, state, interactions, and functions within the sample. And the Vizgen team describes the technology as a “next-generation” upgrade compared with existing technologies thanks to the inclusion of error detection and correction techniques. Walt, who has faculty appointments at Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says MERFISH allows for a full transcriptomic view of cells at very high resolution in intact tissue.
“Every image that’s taken as a consequence of the way that this process is done is done with approximately 100 nanometers of resolution, so you can zoom out all the way to the whole tissue and see where the gene expression is occurring, then you can zoom in to a single cell and look at the subcellular expression of every one of those RNAs that are present in the sample,” he said in an interview.
“There’s been a huge amount of interest in things like the Human Cell Atlas and the [Mouse] Brain Cell Atlas projects … and there have been some tools that are good for starting to tease out a lot of the data that’s needed to understand cell function,” Arch co-founder and managing director Keith Crandell told Xconomy. “We’ve been looking in this area to find some capabilities that have the ability to provide more data, better data, higher resolution, and make it easier to use—basically democratize that whole series of measurements on the single-cell side, and that’s what Vizgen has developed and is targeted toward addressing.
That MERFISH is in use at “several leading labs” gave investors confidence that it works—and has commercial potential, he added.
As part of the Series A investment, Northpond co-founder and partner Sharon Kedar will join Vizgen’s board of directors.