Think of a science fiction scene where jars of human brains line the walls. In a way, BRTI Life Sciences makes similar jars, but on a much, much smaller scale - and in a superior fashion, as company founder Dr. John Brekke says: "Our brains are better than the other guys' brains."
Based in Two Harbors, BRTI is reaching new levels of success as the company markets its Cell-Mate 3D matrix technology to laboratories across the land.
The product allows researchers to grow cells - not just brains, but any tissue - in a more natural, three-dimensional environment rather than at the flat, hard bottom of a petri dish. It's an innovation that has caught the eye of a major distributor, which BRTI is in talks with now.
"That will give us support in the marketplace for selling our product," Brekke said.
BRTI is not a typical business for the region or even Minnesota. While the state is home to plenty of mature health industries, the biotechnology sector here is relatively young, outside of academia.
"It's definitely an emerging area - I would characterize this as an area of research strength and of commercial growth," said Shaye Mandle, CEO of the state industry group Medical Alley Association. "We've seen more than a thousand jobs in the state added in (biotech) and more than a million square feet of space in the past five years."
A boost for BRTI, then, means a boost for biotech and many high-level jobs in the state.
"We're scalable, and there is room in Northeastern Minnesota to increase production, and we're going to do that when demand requires," Brekke said.
The right environment
In 2003, Brekke, a Duluth surgeon with an inventive streak, started Bioactive Regenerative Therapeutics Inc. to research and build a substance that could sustain tissue-like stem cell growth.
"I did it by combining two naturally occurring sugars - that both have FDA approvals in their own rights - into the first biomimetic, three-dimensional cell culture microenvironment," he said.
Brekke will get into the scientific weeds when he describes his work, but he is an attentive professor, sensing that many people - such as this reporter - don't have the greatest grasp on cellular biology.
"Cells behave very differently in response to their environments," he explained, and a petri dish is not an environment that mimics the human body at any stage of development. A gel-like substance with a specific hardness gets closer, however.
BRTI doesn't sell stem cells, but merely the medium into which researchers can grow them. It's not an inexpensive venture - Cell-Mate 3D packages run $350 to $495 for 0.75 to 1.5 mililiters worth of material.
"All of this comes in very small quantities, but cells are very small little dudes," Brekke said.
His laboratory is no small space itself, tucked inside the Northshore Business Enterprise Center, where eight BRTI employees work. An additional six employees work in the Twin Cities office, handling marketing and administration.
The North Shore is where the magic happens - where charged chitosan and hyaluronic acid get packaged and shipped out to the researchers who might find a better drug, a regenerative therapy or maybe even a cure thanks to Brekke's product.
Dr. Timothy O'Brien co-authored a recent paper in the journal "Stem Cells Translational Medicine" that described using Cell-Mate 3D to grow cerebral organoids - not just brain cells, as has been done before, but fully formed, albeit microscopic, brain structures.
"This is potentially really important because they could be used for development of drugs for neurological problems - to check for toxic effects of drugs," said the University of Minnesota professor and member of the school's Stem Cell Institute. "What we're forming is much more like a real brain than what people have had access to before."
The stem cells used don't need to come from embryos, he said, but are taken from adults.
"One of the interesting twists from this is since the stem cells can be derived from anybody, they can be derived from patients with Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's ... to use as sort of a disease-in-a dish sort of model," O'Brien said.
That's helpful for testing drugs in the near-term, but it could be five to 10 years before such cells, grown with BRTI's 3D cell culture matrix, can be used for transplants or regenerative medicine, O'Brien said.
BRTI won't be seeking any Food and Drug Administration approvals for such therapeutic uses and will instead allow others to use the product and pursue that route themselves.
"Cell researchers, and that's a fairly good-sized market, there's no regulatory requirement," Brekke said. "We keep records at the ready if someone wants to license this for therapeutic uses."
Cell growth, business growth
Two things need to happen for BRTI to really take off - broader international distribution and an expanded product line.
"From an overall distribution standpoint, we're starting to line up some key players to get into those markets," said the company's vice president of marketing, Scott Brush. "When we add on new formats of our technology, that will greatly broaden and expand market focus and market opportunities for us."
Brush estimates the current line of products can reach about 20 to 25 percent of the research market. With a few of the company's developments underway, that could grow to reach up to 65 percent.
At the same time, that market is only getting bigger.
"We're seeing a huge growth in stem cells and regenerative medicine - the type of work BRTI is doing," said Mandle of Medical Alley Association.
Cell growth is business growth, and Two Harbors could be the beneficiary as partnerships are lined up and the breakthroughs keep coming, Brush said.
"At the end of the day, it would lead to developing a broader business. More demand will require more people help produce the product."