Dr. Katia Nazmutdinova on How Simplicity Can Solve the Most Complex of Problems

Innovation in Urine Cell Collection & Biobanking

By Teresa Murray, freelance writer for Healthtech and Giant Health Conference

Dr. Katia Nazmutdinova had the idea for her innovation, the Cell Catcher, when working as a PhD student. She was confronted by a problem on one of the research projects which was studying cells shed in urine. Collecting cell samples from urine is a good method. It is non-invasive and provides a simpler way of accessing human cells than blood extraction or biopsies.

From the cultures of these cells, the research teams noticed that the urine cells behaved in a very different way from healthy cells, or even cells extracted from other
tissues, such as skin. They demonstrated a very singular, expansive growth and were generating very interesting data.

The problem lay in the urine collection method.

So, let’s start with the urine.

Cells that end up in our urine die off very quickly due to the toxic environment of urine. It turns out that urine isn’t great for supporting cell life! Cells in urine have a
survival window of a mere 4 hours.

That means there is only 4 hours for the person to pee in the cup, get it to the lab, centrifuge it to get rid of the urine and put the cells in a culture medium to preserve
and grow them.

Not a lot of time really.

Specially for Katia. It was her job to pick up urine samples from different hospitals dotted around London and race against time to the lab before urine killed off the cells
the research team needed.

Katia believed there had to be a better way.

As Katia wrote her thesis, this problem nagged at her until a solution began to take shape.

Why not have something that could be sent to people’s homes? Something that would preserve the cells for longer. Something the person would simply mail back to
the laboratory.

Katia had come up with the concept but was missing the “how”. So she started to work on a way to stop the urine killing the cells.

She got onto Deep Science Ventures, a London incubator programme. This was a key step for Katia, who was a trained scientist (a biologist) and unfamiliar with the worlds of med-tech innovation. The incubator experience was invaluable in helping her to think differently and create a business model. She also teamed up with Natalie Grefenstette, a chemist by training, and together they started a company, Encelo.

Despite the incubator not funding a second phase, Katia believed enough in her idea and managed to get onto an accelerator programme. She managed to raise enough funding to develop a prototype and working together with an engineer and a designer they designed a device that worked – at least in principle.

An ingenious solution in fact.

The person in the comfort of their own bathroom pees into one section of the device. This part resembles a mini-toilet bowl, and looks a better prospect for aim than the
usual tiny plastic cup!

Another simple part fits over the part containing the urine and filters the cells out from the urine. A protective medium is then pushed through to the cells. The killer urine is discarded down the toilet and the cells sit snug and safe in their protective medium.

This operation takes mere minutes.

The project received support from Kidney Research UK and further private investment. The prototype is currently being tested in collaboration with the University College
London and a clinic and has extended the narrow 4-hour window to 24 hours. But Katia believes there is still ample scope to extend this window to several days.

A huge time difference with many benefits.

The device itself is a major innovation, as is the concept behind it. Yet, Katia has an even bigger idea that she thinks is the real game-changer.

Few among us will have given much thought to what happens to our urine once we hand in the cup or dwelled much on what is in our urine.

So a quick note on the cells shed in urine.

It is thought that these cells have stem-cell characteristics. There is not yet full scientific consensus, but if this does prove to be the case, the impact of the device
would be even greater.

Katia is evangelistic on the potential research applications of urine-shed cells beyond kidney research.

Cells are essential for carrying out research, both academic and pharmaceutical. However, human cells for research purposes are surprisingly hard to come by, forcing
researchers to resort to animal cells.

To work on human cells, which is the ideal scenario, samples need to be taken from blood or tissues from skin or biopsy. These, as mentioned, are invasive procedures.
Also, researchers must go through a clinician, which is both time-consuming and too

There are biobanks that store cells and tissue samples donated by people consenting to their cells being used for research. They take years to build up stocks and cost a fortune to run and the sample still needs to get there fast for freezing.

Katia explains that these biobanks need a funding runway of 20 years!

Katia’s idea is to innovate in the biobank sphere using her device, creating a virtual biobank using cells sourced from urine.

Katia’s company would source cells from the target population segments the specific research required; specific phenotypes or genotypes or from people with specific
clinical backgrounds. This, Katia explains, would essentially give the research community cell libraries “from real people, on demand, accessed from urine.”

A research study using Katia’s service would specify their cell needs and then the company would send out the new slimmer version of the device that fits nicely through even the weirdest of letter boxes to the people in the company’s data base. The people selected for the study would then pee into Katia’s device and pop it back
into the mail. Katia’s service would carry out some minimal processing of the sample, then deliver the cells to the research entity.

Seamless and no need for the big, expensive traditional biobanks. Just a needs-based virtual biobank.

This is the way Katia intends to build a viable business model at the same time she would be providing an essential service to research.

The benefits of this are huge.

Essentially the model cuts out the need for researchers to go through a clinician for the samples. Also, people wouldn’t need to travel into clinics to give their blood or have a biopsy to support research.

The urine-sourcing method with Katia’s device is also pain free.

Katia’s model also resolves the current scalability problem, whereby research cells are sourced from a very limited gene pool not very representative of real population

Effective evidence-based research depends on real representivity.

There is another upside to Katia’s idea: donors urine cells could choose how they want their urine cells to be used and in which type of studies. Today people don’t know
what happens to the cells or tissue after they donate.

Katia believes they should have control over this.

At the recent Giant Health Event Katia’s device and virtual biobank idea was selected by the jury as the innovation with the most potential from among 10 other innovations pitched.

For Katia this is a major achievement. She has not had it easy over the last four years it has taken to develop the device and virtual biobank service.

She has had major funding issues with two teams falling apart as a result. She also had a baby. Oh, and there was a pandemic too!

Katia explains that finding funds was so difficult because her innovation is very niche and lacks the sexiness of more mainstream innovations in health. Most people are unaware of the enormous need for cells for research. In addition, still not much is known about the type of cells found in urine.

For Katia, the recognition at this year’s Giant Health conference is in a way a vindication for someone who just 2 years ago was “too pregnant to pitch”. Of women innovators and child-rearing she says there is so much talk of equality for women, but the crude reality is that women, unlike men, are out of the game when having children.

Katia is proud of her 4-year journey of perseverance, and the way she navigated the many challenges in her path. It was her unshaken belief in her idea that meant she never gave up when the going got tough, and the going got very tough.

Yet Katia bounced back over and over and now looks to the future of her innovation and business with optimism. She says of her staying the course and drive “if there is a need, and you have a unique idea that solves it, it’s worth pursuing.”


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