“I told her that 3D printing is being used everywhere in general robotics, and I can’t believe nobody has used it for drug production,” Parietti recalls. “She said, ‘The industry is more focused on drug discovery than drug manufacture.’ I thought, ‘Oh my god! Are you kidding me?'”
The original idea of the founders was to use 3D printing to produce customized drug capsules. A tinkerer, Parietti assembled a prototype of the robotic arm among the pots and pans in his Cambridge kitchen. the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund program and Y Combinator, a startup accelerator, saw the potential and funded and supported the team’s work. Parietti and Melocchi pinpointed their target market: pharmaceutical companies that conduct clinical trials that require drugs to be tested at different doses.
“We know there’s going to be a huge wave of cell therapies, and we know nobody knows how to make them. That’s why people work with us.”
The small team at Multiply Labs firmly believed their work could improve drug production for clinical trials — although he and Melocchi met a lot of resistance and doubt, according to Parietti.
“Potential advisors, potential clients, potential investors – ‘This is impossible’ was what we heard the most,” he says. “It was funny because at first they agreed that personalized medicine is the future and you can’t do it by hand, but then they said it was impossible to solve. I think it’s a very MIT thing to take on big challenges because people are used to being faced with difficult problems.”
Today, these great challenges have been mastered. The company’s robotic clusters are used by leading pharmaceutical companies. Housed in 15 square meters, the cloud-based platforms are fully modular, allowing companies to swap parts and buy multiple complete systems to run together.
“To install a new part or system, we just plug it into the existing assembly,” says Parietti. “It’s pretty easy. It’s basically a Lego set.”
Multiply Labs expects high demand for its devices. “We believe that the future of medicine will be individualized medicines, made as needed for individual patients,” says Parietti, “and the only way to make them is with robots.”
Scaling Cell Therapy
Parietti’s team has spent the last three years learning how to manufacture cell therapies. Although these therapies are a promising anti-cancer tool, they are also expensive and time-consuming to produce. Choose an FDA-approved approach CAR-T therapy, which uses genetically engineered T cells. It requires scientists to draw blood from a patient, isolate immune cells, genetically modify those cells, grow more of the modified cells, and inject them back into the patient’s body. And given the nature of clinical trials, each step must be repeated for each patient.
The goal of Multiply Labs is to automate the steps now performed by highly trained and skilled researchers who spend endless hours completing the production tasks in batch processes.
The genetically engineered cells are grown in bioreactors, which can take days. According to Parietti, Multiply Labs plans to run a handful of bioreactor modules simultaneously on its platform to eliminate the biggest bottleneck in the production process.
Multiply Labs researchers—almost all MIT engineers—recognized early on that they approached problems in a very different way than people in pharmaceutical companies, digging their way into working prototypes and then fine-tuning their systems to meet drug manufacturing standards.
“We’re all roboticists, so we already enjoy building robots, and since we build robots, we might as well build them in a way that has the greatest possible impact on people’s lives,” says Parietti. “I can’t think of a bigger impact than making cell therapies, because these therapies are pretty amazing in terms of effectiveness.”
Multiply Labs has assembled a consortium of key players to drive innovation in cell therapies. Global life sciences company Cytiva, which provides some of the most popular bioreactors currently used to manufacture cell therapies, is among the collaborating partners.
Parker Donner, director of business development for cell and gene therapy at Cytiva, says Multiply Labs’ automation technology has “widespread implications for the industry, including expanding patient access to existing treatments and accelerating the next generation of treatments.”
Other partners include a manufacturing facility at the University of California, San Francisco, where Multiply Labs plans to demonstrate its first robotic cell therapy system in March.
“It’s really a great adventure for someone like me, a medical doctor and scientist, to interact with mechanical engineers and see how they think and solve problems,” he says Jonathan Essentenan MD and assistant professor at UCSF whose research group is involved in the project.
Esensten says his research group was at maximum capacity last year to produce no more than about two to three cell therapies per month per production unit. “I’m confident that we will develop technology that will advance this space and shorten the cost curve so we can do things better, faster and cheaper,” he says. “The beauty of the Multiply Labs concept is that it is modular. You can imagine a robot where there are no bottlenecks: you have as much capacity as you need at every step, no matter how long it takes.”
“Cell therapies are amazing in terms of effectiveness,” says Parietti. “But at the moment they are made by hand. Scientists are used to craft it – it’s essentially artisanal. You can’t scale like that.”