The BioMagnetic Solutions team (left to 
right), scientists Sai Patkar and Dustin
Ritter, CEO and CSO Paul Liberti, and
COO Ted Liberti.

Paul Liberti, who founded BioMagnetic Solutions in 2011, is no stranger to the life sciences. A trailblazer in magnetic cell separation, Liberti now seeks to cultivate cutting-edge ferrofluid technology that could revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

In the 1980s, Liberti became a pioneer in the world of magnetic cell sorting with the invention of novel magnetic nanoparticles. Upon this invention, he founded Immunicon. The company’s early discoveries garnered enthusiasm in the research community; the technology, branded CellSearch, was acquired by the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson. J&J eventually abandoned development of the technology.

Today, Liberti has rebooted this venture. “In my previous career, we were doing the applications, but we didn’t realize there were better ways to do what we were doing,” he said.

“There are new things we can do to make those applications even more versatile,” said Liberti. “What we were doing in 11 steps at Immunicon, we are now doing in three.” BioMagnetic Solutions, currently operating out of incubator space in the Zetachron Center, has its sights set on a clinical-scale cell separator.

Liberti’s team has engineered the increasingly effective ferrofluids, liquids containing dissolved magnetic nanoparticles. By attaching antibodies to the magnetic particles, they are able to find and bind to specific receptors on cells. The cell, in effect, becomes magnetic, and, through modulated direction and force, can be separated from non-magnetic cells.

The enhanced magnetism of these solutions, in which tiny magnetic beads are suspended, allows the technology to sort cells with uncontested precision. It can find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

In one application, the company targets T-cells, so-called “killer cells” that attack disease but are often depleted in people suffering from immune deficiencies. “Within any subpopulation of cells, you have killer cells,” explained Liberti, “but they don’t always do a good enough job.”

Enriching, functionalizing, and purifying these cells overrules the body’s natural limitations – perhaps most importantly, the immune system’s susceptibility to being shut down by diabolical cancer.

Once the desired cells are magnetically tagged, they can be extracted and enriched using molecular biology techniques such as PCR.

That enriched sample will then be shared with a larger company specializing in genetic engineering to be modified for optimal functioning. That is to say, they will correct the defect that was preventing those cells from doing their job properly.

Sai Patkar, M.S., works with cutting-edge
ferrofluid technology in the BioMagnetic
Solutions lab, currently stationed in the
Zetachron Center for Science and
Technology Business Development. 

Next, the cells will be returned to BioMag for purification through magnetic separation. Liberti and his team will then have a large population of healthy cells to return to the patient’s bloodstream.

Liberti also offered the example of sickle cell anemia. The presenting patient’s stem cells, found in bone marrow, don’t produce the right kind of hemoglobin. By isolating a stem cell and plucking it from the bone marrow, the defective cell can be handed off to a third party for genetic modification. Through an engineering process, the stem cell is taught how to input the right type of hemoglobin. BioMag is responsible for the capture and purification—the small but critical initial and final stages.

In addition to widespread therapeutic potential, these ferrofluids, Liberti hopes, will be utilized as a diagnostic tool.

One area of interest for Liberti and his fellows has been cancer dormancy. “Cancers, in certain cases, spontaneously disappear,” he said, “which has led to people selling cures that don’t work.”

For many years, there was a widely accepted belief that tumor cells do not circulate in the blood until end-stage disease. But Liberti and his team discovered that circulating tumor cells are present in the bloodstream even in early stages, and BioMagnetic Solutions’ technology is precise enough to find them, even in relatively insignificant quantities. “If there are only two cells in a billion, we can find them and take them out,” said Liberti.

Beyond extracting the cells, Liberti can glean information about the cancer: “Cells from different parts of your body have markers on them,” he said. “You should, then, be able to look at that tumor cell and identify the early stages of, say, liver cancer or breast cancer.” And of course, early detection provides the best chance of successful treatment.

Furthermore, the technology can be used to measure the efficacy of treatments. Over the course of chemotherapy, a progressive decrease in the presence of circulating tumor cells would indicate a successful treatment.

“This is the wave of the future,” said Liberti, whose decades of medical research and practical experience have informed the course of BioMagnetic Solutions’ push toward improved diagnostic and therapeutic processes. With purity and yield surpassing any magnetic cell separation technology to date, the company is making rapid strides toward revolutionizing cancer treatment.