Acorn Biolabs saves lives one hair at a timeJackie Gill - October 15, 2019
Of the roughly five million hair follicles on your body, about 100,000 are rooted in your scalp.
From those roots grows the hair that helps regulate our temperature, sense our environment and provide protection from the elements. It also plays a role in our psychology and sense of self.
And if that isn’t enough, those roots are also key to unlocking life-changing medical treatments, says Drew Taylor, founder and CEO of Acorn Biolabs.
“There are groups around the world doing amazing research that’s driving forward the ability to create 3D-printed human hearts, kidneys on demand and even clinical trials going on right now using your own cells to treat macular degeneration, Parkinson’s, some of the world’s toughest diseases,” he says.
“The root of that hair, that bulb, has about 20,000 cells that we can use for these things in the future.”
It’s those cells that Acorn collects, analyzes and cryogenically stores in liquid nitrogen tanks underneath Toronto General Hospital – and it starts simply by plucking a few hairs.
Old ideas in new ways
Acorn may be a new company as of April this year, but it’s rooted in a practice known as regenerative medicine, something Taylor, who holds a PhD in biomedical engineering, knows well.
The field of study goes deep, but he explains it simply as “the ability for us to replace our cells, tissues and organs with properly functioning cells, tissues or organs.”
Organ donation is one way of accomplishing that goal. In fact, Taylor himself registered as an organ donor. “But it’s not as effective as using our own cells to build personalized therapies,” he says. “We need the ability to be able to generate these tissues from our own cells to avoid rejection, to make them on demand, so we’re not waiting on lists.”
Cell storage is a first step. Again, nothing new in and of itself – umbilical cord blood banking has been around for about 30 years, for example, and we’ve been freezing cells for fertility treatments for decades – but doing it effectively, in a painless, non-intrusive and easy way is, he adds.
“We need the ability to be able to generate these tissues from our own cells to avoid rejection, to make them on demand, so we’re not waiting on lists.”
– Drew Taylor, founder and CEO of Acorn Biolabs
That’s thanks to two breakthrough discoveries.
The first is IPSCs, or induced pluripotent stem cells. “This is where we can take an adult cell and pull it all the way back to behaving like an embryonic stem cell,” Taylor explains. Even cells from the root of your hair will do. Then there’s CRISPR, which is like cut-and-paste for genes. “You can go in and you can take bad genes out and put a properly functioning gene in.”
Put together, it’s a powerful combo. Imagine editing out parts of your generic code that could lead to Parkinson’s and replacing it with a properly functioning gene, he says, or growing a fully functioning organ that’s essentially your own from just a sample of cells.
“That is true precision and preventative healthcare,” he says. “And that’s what’s coming.”
Bringing science to the people
While Acorn isn’t growing new organs themselves, they’re giving people an easy pathway to prepare for a future where that’s the norm.
It starts with plucking a few hairs, which customers can do at a cell collection event, at Acorn’s lab at MaRS and, coming soon, via a home collection kit. No nurse or doctor required.
The next stop for that sample is Acorn’s lab. “I’m sure people have seen science fiction movies. That’s what it looks like we work at, which is pretty cool,” says Taylor. Employees don full white robes – not just lab coats – on-premises, and when harvesting those cells, only their hands go into the ventilated workspace.
“I’m sure people have seen science fiction movies. That’s what it looks like we work at, which is pretty cool.”
– Drew Taylor
Each sample gets photographed and split up to provide an added layer of redundancy in case of equipment failure or other problems with storage.
Finally, the cells take a cryogenic bath in liquid nitrogen, which cools them down to -196 C. “That is the best temperature to store things long-term without any kind of DNA mutations or degradations or metabolism actually affecting the cells,” he says. “Whatever time point you froze them down at, you’ll have access to your cells at that health, at that age point.”
But before this kind of thing becomes the norm, it needs to hit a critical mass in awareness. For the most part, regenerative medicine hasn’t hit front-page news, which means it hasn’t caught the public eye yet, he says.
When it does make headlines, it’s usually for something goes wrong, he adds. “The fact that there’s medical tourism and people probably using stem cells prematurely, and unproven therapies, I think that sets us all back.”
“Whatever time point you froze them down at, you’ll have access to your cells at that health, at that age point.”
– Drew Taylor
Acorn starts by partnering with workplaces for wellness events that educate employees about cell therapy without pushing product – though they often do end up returning to collect samples from those who are interested, along with their families and friends. You’ll catch Acorn’s pop-up booth at conferences like Collision and Elevate, too.
“It’s buried in scientific journals, so we try to make that accessible,” he says. “I think it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take us to continue telling this message, and more and more of these amazing discoveries.”
From pitching a baseball to pitching a business
Taylor banked his own cells through Acorn, but that’s hardly his first taste of regenerative medicine.
That story begins in grade seven, when he was tasked with a science project for school. Taylor didn’t build a potato battery or a papier-mâché volcano. He picked a total knee arthroplasty.
“So I got to go into an OR and watch them put in a joint, in essentially a young woman,” he remembers. “Just seeing that patient’s jubilation with the ability to walk again, that affected me. And I think at that point right there, it was like my mind was made up. I’m going to be in medicine and healthcare.”
But that wasn’t his only love. “I come from baseball family. My father actually played baseball for 11 seasons,” he says. At the end of that career, after joining a USO tour in Vietnam, his father settled into a new life as a doctor.
Taylor followed in those footsteps, rising through the ranks as a baseball player while studying biology at the University of Michigan, and by the time he was ready to make a decision about pursuing a Doctor of Medicine, he was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays as a pitcher in the minor leagues.
“This was my one opportunity to play professional athletics, and so I did it,” he says.
He didn’t want to give up the momentum he built in medicine, though, so he applied to PhD programs. Eventually, he found one that was willing to work with him during the off-seasons, and he did his best to balance both parts of his life.
“At that point right there, it was like my mind was made up. I’m going to be in medicine and healthcare.”
– Drew Taylor
“I can remember vividly that first year, I was in the little tunnel area between the locker room and the dugout, and I was on the phone talking with the supervisor at the University of Toronto about stem cells and tissue engineering and regenerative medicine…in full uniform, as other players are heading out to the game,” he says.
Taylor’s baseball career was short-lived, though, thanks to a shoulder injury. But even that was a blessing in disguise, he says. “It didn’t last as long as I would have liked, but then again, I wouldn’t be able to jump into doing exciting things like [Acorn] as quickly.”
As for what keeps him excited today? “This amazing future in precision medicine and regenerative medicine that is coming a lot faster than I think most people think,” he says. “We are going to end up seeing many, many [tools] coming online, in my opinion, in the next 10 years here. So realistically, this is happening in our lifetimes.”
- Name: Acorn Biolabs
- Solution: A biotechnology company that collects and stores cells to fight disease and promote longer life
- Owners: Drew Taylor, founder and CEO
- Employees: 12
- Headquarters: Toronto, Ont.
- Founded: 2019
- Initial investment: $3.3 million
- Contact: [email protected]