The medical technology company Cellectricon has gone from developing and selling advanced lab equipment to providing pharmaceutical testing as a service. Prevas is assisting Cellectricon as a software development partner.
Cellectricon is an academic spinoff with patents developed at the Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg. The operations begun in 2001 and there are now 15 staff members at the company's site in Mölndal. With an inhouse-developed instrument platform, Cellectricon conducts research and pharmaceutical testing on the behalf of several major pharmaceutical companies.
“A customer may have ten different substances they want to evaluate,” says Johan Pihl, COO at Cellectricon. “We deliver a full-scale analysis complemented with a professional assessment of the results, an informative document that makes it easier for the customer to make decisions about subsequent steps in development.”
Unique instrument platform with substantial capacity
Cellectricon conducts tests of pharmaceuticals for combating chronic pain as well as diseases related to the central nervous system, primarily Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. For tests focusing on pain, the tests are conducted by “saturating” nerve cell cultures with an inflammatory substance that exists naturally in the body.
“It places the cells in a state of simulated pain; they become easily irritated and sensitive,” says Johan Pihl. “We then test how different substances affect them, with the goal of restoring them to the normal state as effectively as possible.”
The actual test platform consists of a plate with up to 384 wells for test tissue. A robot lowers tips with electrodes into the wells and a series of electrical pulses activate the cells which then release calcium. The wells are illuminated from below and a camera registers all activity with a resolution and quality that enables analysis for either the entire plate or well by well.
“Detection of calcium is the established method for observing how cells signal,” says Johan Pihl. “What makes our method unique is that we apply electrical stimuli and that by utilizing robot capacity, we can achieve extremely high measurement capacity.”
From product to service
When Cellectricon was founded, the business concept was to develop and sell technical platforms for various kinds of measurement and manipulation of cells. However, as the platforms became increasingly larger, with more and more functions, they also became increasingly complex to use. At the same time, they became more expensive and subsequently difficult to sell.
“During the 2000s, parts of the pharmaceutical industry also encountered problems with profitability, which led to the closure of production sites and a surplus of instruments,” says Johan Pihl. "The early development phases, in which our instruments are used, were often outsourced to other companies. We then made the strategic decision to completely refocus and instead offer research as a service.”
Cellectricon now concentrated on conducting analyses inhouse and invoicing customers for the results. The technical platform they had developed and refined had unique functionality, but lacking was tailored software for steering the platform – the operators had to work with two computers and a separate system for controlling the robot. Prevas was engaged to develop a fully integrated software application to link together the various components.
“We began by looking at the existing code base and stripping away anything that did not fulfil its purpose,” says Olle Damgaard, consultant at Prevas’ office in Gothenburg. “We also rebuilt certain parts from scratch because we determined that it would be too time-consuming to update the existing code.”
Because the user interface was developed for advanced users – meaning Cellectricon personnel – a high level of functionality and settings capabilities could be added. The software did not need to be “end-customer ready”, but it still needed to be easy to learn and work with.
“We’ve really succeeded with this,” says Johan Pihl. “ We have new employees who have run tests after just a few days, and after a couple of weeks on the job, they've been able to program their own test routines.”
Cellectricon presently has several leading pharmaceutical companies among its customers and they also participate in government-financed research projects. The instrument platform is being constantly developed with, for example, improved optics, better lighting and optimization of robot control. When the hardware is improved, the software must also be updated and collaboration with Prevas is thus strategically important.
“Prevas is easy to work with, they are technically skilled, but above all, they are keen about understanding our needs,” says Johan Pihl. “Something we especially appreciate is that they always take the user perspective. They put the user and application in focus, and then they resolve the technical aspects.”
For Prevas, what they have done for Cellectricon demonstrates both branch breadth and expertise. The workflow for Cellectricon’s instrument platform is unique and there was nothing on which to base development in visualizing a user interface.
“It's a recurring challenge in software development, creating a user-friendly system that is adapted to specific operations,” says Olle Damgaard. “It really feels great that we’ve been able to contribute with what our customer needs.”
Do you want to know more about this project or find out what Prevas can do for you, please contact us.
Ylva Amrén, Prevas AB, Gothenburg, e-mail