How Van Heron Labs, a HudsonAlpha resident associate company, is revolutionizing biotech and speeding up innovation

Back in late 2020 when a COVID vaccine was ready for the frantic public, it was infuriatingly hard to get. People got on waiting lists or traveled far from home just to get a shot.

If manufacturers had been able to use one Alabama-based company’s technology, that backlog might have been less of an issue.

Van Heron Labs, located on the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology campus, has devised a cell culture improvement process that could expedite medical research and bring new therapies and vaccines to patients more quickly.

Dr. Rebecca C. Vaught is co-founder and CEO of Van Heron Labs and a multidisciplinary scientist. The company’s process of making better environments for cells for faster, cheaper cell research and manufacturing has implications for agriculture, biologics, cell therapy, gene therapy, stem cells treatments and more. 

Van Heron Labs began in the Texas Medical Center in Houston in February 2020. When the pandemic hit the next month, they used their technology to optimize COVID vaccine production in co-founder Dr. Alec Santiago’s living room. Their budget was $200 a month. Obstacles along the way included funding rejections, predatory lawyers — even a stalker.

They soon wanted a permanent home for their work. Foresight Biosciences – also working on COVID vaccines – offered to let VHL join their lab space at HudsonAlpha, a bioscience campus for researchers, entrepreneurs and educators in Huntsville. 

They became part of the collegial environment there in August 2020. It helped that Dr. Vaught grew up in the area and has family here, but she liked the supportive atmosphere in general.

“We were impressed with the HudsonAlpha Biotech Campus and the offerings as an associate company,” she said. Those include on-campus collaborators, resources like marketing and investor introductions, legal help, lab space and access to an MIT-based mentor program called Navigate, which serves as an unofficial board of directors. 

Just four years later, VHL works with biotech companies worth billions. VHL has been named a top start-up in Alabama, earned peer recognition and raised $1.1 million to further develop its processes.

Dr. Vaught explained that in biomanufacturing, living cells are used to produce something else, like therapeutics, food additives or biomaterials.

A recent example is the COVID-19 vaccine. The components are produced in living cells.

“If you are a company and you want to produce a better vaccine faster and for cheaper cost, it’s in your best interest to try and optimize your bioprocess,” she explained. 

People do this in numerous ways, she said, by modifying cell lines or changing settings like temperature.

“What we do is actually optimize the nutrients those cells are consuming within the bioprocess that you care about,” she explained.

That’s important in the production of many therapeutics such as monoclonal antibodies used to treat conditions like psoriasis or Crohn’s disease, or cell therapies for blood cancers like leukemia or myeloid lymphoma, or even stem cell therapies.

In practical examples, VHL is collaborating with a group in Texas that is working on a melanoma treatment. An Alabama company has used the VHL process to test multiple therapeutics at once more effectively. 

“They can see if the actual therapy is going to work for you,” she said.

Because of changes in biotechnology, life sciences and manufacturing, “people are now using these cells as sort of a factory to make different products,” she said, even food products or clothing additives.

“All of these cells are growing in a nutrient soup. It basically looks like broth,” she said.

Recipes, so to speak, for that “broth” date to the 1950s or 1960s.

“Either you have to use these formulations that were made a long time ago or you’re buying a formulation made more recently by a company that is slightly more custom for you but is expensive, and the formulation is unknown,” she said.

Custom formulations can be extremely expensive, though, and the need was there for something more cost-effective yet specific.

“People engage with us because they have a unique cell that’s performing a unique function that’s creating a unique product, so what we’re able to do is tailor the composition of that nutrient broth for their specific needs.”

Researchers’ cells might not be developing or producing as much of the product as they need, she explained. They may have tried modifying cell lines or oxygen levels and nothing works.

“Using our technology, people can increase the growth and production rate of their cells by two, three, four times. We’ve even seen up to nine times in the lab.”

The implications for research and bio-manufacturing are potentially huge. By using VHL’s technology, “the benefits can be quite profound,” she said.

“Imagine if you could produce four times more from a single batch,” she said. “The real bottleneck for COVID was not the vaccine development. It was on the manufacturing side – actually making enough to get shots in people’s arms.

”What if you could run one batch and get as much product as you’d theoretically be producing in a month, and you’d get it in a week?”

Their secret sauce is something called ai.VHL, a platform that uses omics data, AI and bioinformatics to determine what nutrients match a cells’ metabolic needs.

“We optimize the nutrients that the cells need within that bioprocess so they can produce that particular product better, faster and cheaper,” she said. “With an outstanding team, strong technology, and the HudsonAlpha ecosystem, we have developed the most powerful precision nutrition platform on the planet and we’re planning to keep it that way.”