University of Washington biotech spinout Opticyte has landed $2.9 million in federal grants and $1.7 million in seed funding. The Seattle startup is developing a non-invasive technology that can detect oxygen levels in cells in real time.
The Opticyte Cell O2 Monitor could help in the treatment of sepsis, which is an infection that runs amuck and can cause organs to shut down, resulting in death. If a sepsis patient sees their cellular oxygen levels drop, it can be an indication of the onset of organ failure.
There is seemingly a tremendous need for tools to address sepsis. Some 1.7 million Americans are diagnosed with sepsis each year, and 1 in 3 hospital deaths are patients with sepsis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And people with severe cases of COVID-19 “are at higher risk of developing and dying from sepsis,” according to a World Health Organization news release.
Opticyte’s device will allow doctors to make rapid assessments of a patient’s cell oxygen levels when they arrive in an emergency department, allowing providers to quickly administer antibiotics if sepsis is indicated. Other tests can take an hour to make the same assessment, said Opticyte co-founder and CEO Lori Arakaki. And in the case of a severe infection, every minute counts in their survival.
Opticyte will be testing the device with emergency patients at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. The observational study is scheduled to launch in May or June and the recent funding will pay for the hiring of three part-time employees to help with data collection. The investments will also fund the further development of the device.
Arakaki launched the company in 2016 with Dr. Kenneth Schenkman, who serves as chief medical officer and is a critical care physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Arakaki, formerly a UW bioengineering research scientist for 18 years, is the only full-time employee, along with two part-time workers.
The technology works by attaching a device to the palm of a patient’s hand and shining a light in the visible and near-infrared spectrum through their skin. The tool measures the reflected light, which correlates to the level of oxygenation in a patient’s muscle tissue, as defined by Opticyte’s own algorithms.
There are other newly developed devices from Medtronic, Edwards Lifesciences and others that measure oxygen levels in tissue, but the Seattle startup is the only one that can distinguish between oxygen levels in blood versus muscle cells.
Researchers with Opticyte have published studies that make correlations between muscle oxygenation and shock severity in trauma patients, sepsis and other conditions. The Harborview study will bolster the research. And while it would be ideal to specifically measure oxygen levels in a patient’s heart or liver, it’s not practical.
“Those are too deep from the surface for us to measure,” Arakaki said. “What we can measure in hands is very relevant to what is happening to the core organs.”
Doctors typically use pulse oximeter technology, which provides less precise information because it only measures the oxygenation of blood passing through large arteries.
“If the technology proves out, the [Opticyte] device could have a significant impact on improving patient outcomes in sepsis.” Dr. Daniel Henning, a Harborview emergency medicine doctor, said in a statement. Henning will lead Harborview’s observational study of the device.
The seed funding round closed in November and was led by SWAN Venture Fund II and StarFish Medical, a medical device engineering firm. Added to that was $2.9 million awarded in May by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The startup previously received $1.1 million from the NIH in 2016.
Arakaki said they’ll seek a Series A round in 2022, which would fund a randomized control trial with the device. A trial that shows a clinical benefit — the reduction of organ failure when the Opticyte monitor is used — will be key for healthcare providers accepting the technology.