Biotech Firm, Incubator Land Funding For New Cancer Research Lab In Two Harbors

IRRRB grants $38,000 to BRTI and the Northshore Business Enterprise Center.

Bioactive Regenerative Therapeutic Inc., a northern outpost in Minnesota’s biotech industry, is growing thanks to a product that’s targeting some of the world’s fastest-growing medical research sectors.
And now, with financial backing from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, BRTI will be one of the beneficiaries of a new cancer cell biology research laboratory to be set up within the same Two Harbors business center that houses its headquarters.
The firm has grown from basically just founder and chief scientific officer John Brekke to 14 employees over the last decade as its product, the Cell-Mate 3D cell culture matrix, is in demand from the world’s premier medical research institutions and largest pharmaceutical makers.
A patented tool for growing cell cultures in three rather than two dimensions, it’s finding applications in cancer cell research and regenerative medicine, two areas that are currently attracting tremendous amounts of medical interest and funding. 
So why is this cutting-edge med-tech company headquartered in tiny Two Harbors, the ancestral home of 3M, Betty’s Pies and smoked fish houses?
It turns out Brekke, who lives in a township outside of Duluth, wanted to set up shop close to home, and so leased space at the Northshore Business Enterprise Center, a 20,000-square-foot incubator building just north of town. Since then, BRTI has invested $113,000 in leasehold improvements to its space. 
The company’s subsequent success and the prospect of luring more biotech-related businesses to Northeastern Minnesota led to an effort between BRTI and the incubator’s owner, Mike Valentine, to pitch a brand new cancer R&D lab within the 20-year-old building.
Eventually they decided on the construction of a 350-square-foot facility, costing $50,000, to be leased by BRTI and used in partnership with another Northshore biotech tenant, Betula Extractives, as well as by the University of Minnesota-Duluth Medical School. To get it funded, incubator landed a $38,000 grant in June from the IRRRB, while covering the remainder itself.
The Iron Range commissioners saw the funding as an opportunity to help a development-stage company that’s showing promise as well as a means to further basic medical research, according to Steve Peterson, the IRRRB’s executive director of development.
“Oftentimes things start out in a little cube… you can go back to when 3M began in Two Harbors in someone’s garage,” he said. “You don’t know what the future’s going to bring, but when we see folks coming together and making these types of research investments, we certainly want to be a part of that.
“I think it’s great for that area and could be great for the world if they were in fact to discover some cures or therapies for cancer. It’s bigger than just a couple of jobs.”
Cell culture is an important tool for biological research and for years has been dominated by 2-dimensional models, which involve growing cells in flat layers on plastic surfaces. The problem is this does not accurately reflect conditions in the body, and adversely affects cell proliferation, differentiation, gene expression and response to stimuli. Advances in material sciences now allow for 3-D cultures such as Cell-Mate, which uses a proprietary gel to mimic human tissues and thus promote natural gene expression in the growing cells. 
Scott Brush, BRTI’s Twin Cities-based vice president of sales and marketing, said the new R&D lab will definitely be “an enhancement” for the company as it seeks to further penetrate its core markets of in vitro disease modeling—such as cancer research—liver toxicity and stem cells/regenerative medicine.
“What makes Dr. Brekke’s cell culture matrix different is that it can be used in all these different areas with very good success, where other matrixes are designed for one or the other,” he said. “We look at Cell-Mate 3D mainly as a platform research tool, something that doesn’t require FDA approval.  But it also has applications on the regulated clinical side of the market as well, such as the tissue bioengineering that’s done in regenerative medicine.”
The company is starting to further explore the clinical side of the market – it currently only comprises 25 percent of its business, Brush said.
Meanwhile, BRTI and its founder are actively pursuing new clinical uses for its “biomimetic” gels.
“We’ve received a license from the University of Minnesota to further develop and commercialize what amounts to a transport vehicle for the implantation of pig islets, which is a procedure that the Diabetes Institute and others favor as a potential future treatment for Type I diabetes,” Brekke told TCB. “Dr. Timothy O’Brien of the Minnesota Stem Cell Institute and I carried out the research on this and BRTI and the University have a patent filed for it.”
The islets, or cell clusters, are taken from pigs, and when transplanted into humans have been shown to produce insulin, thus reducing or eliminating the need for injections in cases of severe diabetes. They are “encapsulated” by various kinds of coatings designed to protect them from the host’s immune system.
The BTRI system, they inventors claim, is an improvement in that it employs a biocompatible, 3-D hybrid gel “platform” to both grow the cells before transplanting and protect for them once implanted.