There is a lot to love in the beautiful city of St. Louis: from the quiet neighborhoods permeated with old world charm to the picturesque streets reminiscent of Paris “petites rues” ─ St. Louis was after all founded by a Frenchman.
In stark contrast to the traditional European charm, there’s a futuristic side to the city, one that led to the design of the Gateway Arch and now, to the creation of the Cortex. The Cortex Innovation Community is a new neighborhood founded in 2002 as an urban neighborhood where companies have access to talent, new technology and lab space. Canopy Biosciences is a Contract Research Organization (CRO) company situated in the heart of the Cortex; it offers life science technology services for genomics and personalized medicine. Among Canopy’s offerings is the, NanoString® nCounter® and very soon the GeoMx® Digital Spatial Profiler.
We had the pleasure to speak with Canopy CEO and co-founder Dr. Edward J. Weinstein, Ph.D.
NS: Canopy Biosciences is a relatively new CRO founded in 2016. Your senior management is young as well; COO Crystal Winkeler was recently named one of St. Louis Business Journal’s 40-Under-40. What was the inspiration behind founding such a vibrant and dynamic company? Why did you choose beautiful St. Louis as the headquarters?
EW: Many companies are founded around a single technology and it’s very common for these companies to struggle as they move out of R&D and into the commercialization of their product or service. As an analyst with Biogenerator, Crystal noticed this frequent challenge in the start-ups they were investing in. This inspired her to co-found Canopy Biosciences. With Canopy, we took a different approach. We founded the company around a strong core leadership team and then looked to acquire technologies that were already developed and ready for commercialization. And you are right – this is a dynamic company; we can take these technologies and move very fast.
Choosing St. Louis as the headquarters was an easy choice —there is a bustling tech and biotech start-up scene here, and innovation districts such as the Cortex, where Canopy is located, provide the support for start-ups to thrive. Large life science companies have a major presence in the region, including MilliporeSigma and Bayer, and St. Louis is also home to world-class research institutions like Washington University and St. Louis University that further fuel innovation in the region.
NS: Your corporate values ─ service, humility, integrity, excellence, respect, and diversity ─ resonate with the foundations of the Learning Organization Model as described by Peter Senge. Organizations that follow this model have an advantage as they are open to new experiences and knowledge, keeping them dynamic and forward thinking. How does this mindset benefit your customers and the company’s growth?
EW: Our corporate values are an important part of Canopy Biosciences. At Canopy, we are 100% devoted to our customers, as any CRO should be. We’ve tried to take this to a level beyond that of most CROs. We aim to make the sales and ordering process as easy as possible. That’s why you’ll find pricing for nearly every product and service we sell right on our website. Additionally, we provide up- and downstream services to be able to offer our customers a turn-key solution. A customer can order NanoString analysis from us wherein we do everything from sourcing and procuring the samples to extracting the RNA, running the samples on the nCounter, and ultimately analyzing the data for them and providing the results in an intuitive, interactive format.
NS: The NanoString nCounter analysis system plays a major role in the suite of specialty services offered at Canopy Biosciences. What made you choose to add nCounter expression assays to your suite of services and what are the biggest advantages of this technology?
EW: As we were evaluating technologies to bring into our portfolio, nCounter quickly became a clear standout. The technology fit well with the types of services we were offering. It’s fast, extremely quantitative, generates a large amount of data, and produces data that is relatively simple to analyze and understand. Additionally, we felt we could make this powerful technology available to many more researchers who do not have access to an instrument. And finally, we thought we knew that we could add significant value for the customer by really focusing on the NanoString technology – becoming a source of technical and practical expertise for researchers. That’s something that we just didn’t see other CROs providing.
NS: Canopy Biosciences offers an impressive and dynamic NanoString “menu”, with on-the-shelf panels and made-to-order Custom CodeSets for humans, mice, and other animal models. Can you describe the types of preclinical and clinical studies that have taken advantage of NanoString and which murine and human panels you have the most experience with? In what research areas do you see the most promising projects?
EW: One of the great things about NanoString is that it can be quickly adapted for all sorts of applications. We have analyzed a very wide variety of sample types. We have performed many PDX studies on xenografts excised from murine models as well as human blood from clinical trials. We’ve run many of the NanoString panels, including the miRNA, Neuropathology, and Neuroinflammation panels, but the most popular have been the PanCancer Immune Profiling and IO 360™ panels, as you might expect. In terms of new, promising research areas, the Tumor Signaling 360 panel looks very interesting and we are also very excited to be able to offer the COVID-19 Panel Plus Beta, which should prove to be invaluable for researchers developing new treatments for the SARs-CoV-2 virus.
NS: I looked at the NanoString data analysis report that you offer to customers. All the QC and data analysis steps are easy to understand and clearly visualized. What is the reaction of customers to this simple and powerful data analysis offering when they experience NanoString for the first time?
EW: Researchers’ responses to our data analysis reports have been tremendous. They’re used to receiving huge files of raw data which require a bioinformatician to untangle and make sense of. We’ve sought to make the analysis simple and present it in a format they can understand and use straight away. We’ve invested a lot in this area, and just unleashed a huge upgrade to our analysis capability through presentation in a new interactive, web-based platform. This is exceptionally attractive to customers because it incorporates feedback we’ve received—they can download high-res images for publication, collaborate with colleagues remotely, and dig-in to expanded pathway analysis.
We also offer exclusive access to Percayai’s Compbio technology for customers looking to go even deeper with their analyses. Compbio is very exciting because of what it does – instead of taking data and matching it to existing pathways, Compbio’s algorithm takes the data and creates pathways based on publications in Pubmed. It allows researchers to find meaning in their data that a regular pathway mapping tool might miss.
NS: Can you give our readers an example of a typical smaller-sized NanoString project that Canopy Biosciences works with clients on and how you incorporate your core scientific capabilities and operations into the completion of the project?
EW: All our projects, no matter how big or small, get the same level of precision, rigor, and care from our team. We take on projects with as few as just twelve samples. However, because the nCounter platform is so powerful, you can still get an incredible amount of data from a sample size this small. Because technical replicates are not required with the nCounter, a research study with an sample size of three can still allow you to look at four different groups or conditions—and getting expression across as many as 800 genes from those samples means you can quickly and inexpensively generate a lot of data.
One thing that customers with smaller projects really appreciate is our ability to handle any type of sample. We can work straightaway with purified RNA or do RNA extraction from just about any sample—cells, tissues, tumors, blood, or FFPE. And a quick word about FFPE – if you do the RNA extraction well, there is no better platform for analysis than NanoString. We’ve done plenty of head-to-head comparisons between NanoString and RNASeq on FFPE and the NanoString technology is clearly the best.
NS: Can you give us a high-level overview of what a larger study entails? What kind of support would a customer receive throughout the process?
EW: When we think of larger studies, we think of both basic R&D and clinical studies. We’ve done long-term, multi-batch projects with customers over the course of more than 12 months and encompassing hundreds of samples. Our customers rarely have all samples available at once, so these projects are typically performed piecemeal, which the nCounter system is well-suited for. We have extensive project management and employ careful sample tracking. Large projects like this also require regular meetings with the customer.
Large studies may also include work-up downstream of the nCounter analysis. We can procure samples for our customers and very frequently perform the extractions. And, as mentioned, data analysis is a large part of most of the projects we do.
NS: These are hard and uncertain times due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite this, Canopy remains operationally sound. Can you speak to the benefits of NanoString that help you maintain “business as usual” for your customers during this challenging situation?
EW: This is as uncertain a time for our researchers as we’ve ever seen. We do what we can to make sure their research can continue. We have multiple nCounter instruments located at multiple sites, so we’ve got the necessary redundancies in place to ensure that we can continue to help our customers advance their research, which is critical. And our data analysis platform allows research to continue from home as well, so our customers can plan their next experiment.
NS: Canopy Biosciences is now offering the COVID-19 Panel Plus Beta spike-in for NanoString gene expression panels that allows customers to study the SARs-CoV-2 virus in conjunction with the host immune response. This R&D tool includes ten probes targeting coronavirus genes as well as the ACE2 receptor gene to accelerate research and development of vaccines and therapies. Have you seen a growing interest in cell line or humanized mouse projects related to SARs-CoV-2 and infectious disease in general?
EW: We are absolutely seeing a spike in interest across several of our products and services that can help investigate SARs-CoV-2. Additionally, we’ve upgraded our data analysis platform to include SARs-CoV-2 pathways to further seamlessly integrate with the COVID-19 Panel Plus Beta and provide our customers with the analysis tools they need. The fact that NanoString was so quick to introduce this panel is going to be a huge benefit for our customers.
NS: In 2019, NanoString launched the GeoMx Digital Spatial Profiler (DSP). It is a groundbreaking platform that is already revolutionizing the way scientists are looking at the effect of biomarkers being expressed differently in spatially distinct cells and tissues. Canopy Biosciences is a leader in bringing “tomorrow’s technologies” to their customers today and your capabilities will soon include DSP analysis. Can you provide insight on value to your clients and what type(s) of projects will be implemented at Canopy?
EW: Canopy Biosciences has been building out our multi-omics capabilities and that now includes RareSeq, RNASeq, the NanoString nCounter, and Chip Cytometry among other technologies. Adding the GeoMx DSP platform to our portfolio will enable us to fill a gap in our platform—transcriptional and proteomic profiling in two dimensions. Imagine all the possibilities combining these powerful technologies! We are excited to be a preferred CRO for the GeoMx DSP and look forward to making it a core part of our offering.
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