AllCells is a biotechnology company that specializes in biologically relevant, high quality primary cells to enable drug discovery, development, and manufacturing of cell therapies. Leveraging its expertise in hematological and immune cell isolations, combined with on-site whole blood and bone marrow tissue collection operations, AllCells maintains one of the world’s largest and most diverse repositories of donor profiles that can be screened and qualified for biomedical applications.
I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Jay Tong, President and CEO of AllCells. In this interview, we discuss AllCells history, its leadership in blood donor cell collections and hematologic tissue products and the recent opening of its newest facility in Boston, Massachusetts. We also explore the company’s long-term goals and expansion into the cell therapy development space.
Interview with Dr. Jay Tong, President and CEO
Cade Hildreth: What is your background and what inspired you to found AllCells?
Dr. Jay Tong: My education, scientific training and working experience all have been closely related to hematopoiesis or the blood system. I got my MD in China and completed my Hematology Fellow training in Italy about 30 years ago, after which I came to United States in 1992 to conduct scientific research in the field of identifying and purifying human hematopoietic stem cells as a post-doc in Ronald Hoffman’s lab in Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI).
From 1993 to 1998, I entered the biotech industry as a research scientist focusing on human hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) purification, ex vivo expansion, and gene transduction at Novartis-Systemix, Inc. The applications of those projects were related to anti-breast cancer therapy and gene therapy. I got the business idea of forming AllCells during my tenure at Novartis-Systemix as a Research Scientist.
During my five-year tenure at Novartis-Systemix, I needed human bone marrow and peripheral blood tissues as the starting material to select hematopoietic stem cells/progenitor cells for my research projects, but unfortunately, obtaining human bone marrow and peripheral blood samples was extremely challenging. A classic approach of obtaining those tissues in 1990s was to work with hospitals where doctors or nurses would collect those tissues for researchers on a case-by-case situation.
There were no commercial entities that were professionally providing human bone marrow or peripheral blood tissues or purified hematopoietic stem cell/progenitor cells from those tissues at industrial standards. Meaning, the products were not able to be delivered at confirmed date and time, the prices of products were not clearly listed, and products did not come with consistent quantity or quality that had been verified through a quality control process.
By understanding the needs in the scientific field and the complete lack of commercial suppliers, I decided to fill the gap and serve this critical niche market. I started AllCells 20 years ago as “one-person company” using $20,000 in family savings, because nobody was willing to invest in me due to my lack of business experience. During the early stage of AllCells’ business, I worked extremely hard, often putting in days that lasted 20 hours or more.
Today, AllCells has more than 70 full time very talented employees serving scientific researchers worldwide in the fields of stem cell therapy, anti-cancer therapy, gene therapy, immunotherapy, and anti-infectious disease therapy. AllCells is now a global leader in this niche market.
Cade Hildreth: That is an impressive back story. What products and services does AllCells offer and to whom?
Dr. Jay Tong: AllCells has been very focused on one particular area since the company was founded – the human hematopoietic system. The human hematopoietic system consists of hematopoietic tissues, including bone marrow, peripheral blood, and cord blood, as well as hematopoietic stem cells/progenitors cells, myeloid cells, T cells, B cells, NK cells, dendritic cells, macrophages, neutrophils, red blood cells, platelets, and more.
AllCells products comprehensively cover all tissues and cells from healthy volunteers, as well as from diseased patients, for example, leukemia patients, autoimmune disease patients, and HIV positive patients, among others. In addition AllCells is one of the few providers of mobilized peripheral blood from Mobilized Leuko Paks. Any research scientist whose projects are related to stem cell research, anti-cancer research, gene therapy, or anti-infectious diseases such as HIV, HBV, or HCV, is a potential AllCells customer.
AllCells also provides unique services for customers who need bone marrow or blood tissues from particular donors, such as human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typed donors, donors with specific vaccines, or donors with certain disorders, such as trichotillomania (hair pulling disorders), etc. We provide these services through our LeukoLab blood donor centers located in the Greater San Francisco Bay and Boston Areas.
AllCells also offers a service package called AllCellutionsTM that provides experimental data in addition to cell products to customers who have no or little expertise on hematopoietic and immunological cell cultures, CD34+ enumeration, or immunophenotyping by flow cytometry.
Cade Hildreth: I noticed that AllCells recently launched a clinical grade line called CliniCellsTM. What justified your investment in this area and what do you see in the future for this part of your business?
Dr. Jay Tong: Yes, to meet increased demand for starting materials related to emerging stem cell, regenerative medicine, and anticancer cellular therapy clinical applications, we launched our CliniCellsTM product line, which features clinical grade bone marrow and peripheral blood leukapheresis products. As the first commercially available vendor in the world for these products, it was an important addition to our product portfolio.
Companies that are developing bone marrow derived mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy for various diseases, such as inflammatory diseases (GVHD, Crohn’s/IBD), autoimmune diseases (RA, OA, MS, SLE), neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Cognitive Disorders), and cardio-vascular diseases, need clinical grade bone marrow as the starting material for these therapies. Hundreds of clinical trials in regenerative medicine now involve bone marrow derived mesenchymal stem cells (BM-MSCs).
Companies like Novartis, which just recently developed the first FDA approved anti-cancer CAR-T cell therapy product for Acute Lymphocyte Leukemia (ALL), need clinical grade peripheral blood cells. Although autologous peripheral blood CAR-T cell therapy is the area that many cell therapy developers are focusing on today, we see allogeneic peripheral blood CAR-T cell therapy as a better long-term solution. Manufacturers are currently faced with the challenge of where to source their starting material for the development of these types of therapies.
For this reason, we have recently put together a ‘Top 10’ list of considerations when selecting a Human Tissue Supplier for Allogeneic Cell Therapy Manufacturing. Your readers can obtain a copy of this by requesting it at http://clinical.allcells.com.
Cade Hildreth: AllCells was one of the first companies to specialize in sourcing human hematopoietic primary cells for the life science community and remains a global market leader. What unique capabilities differentiate AllCells from other alternatives that researchers may have?
Dr. Jay Tong: AllCells has at least three unique capabilities that differentiate it from other competitors. First, AllCells, has a quicker turnaround for sourcing tissues and delivering the product, because we have wholly-owned tissue collection facilities where doctors and full-time nurses focus on recruiting donors, collecting tissues and managing the replacement of donors who may be unable to donate on the scheduled date of tissue collection.
Second, AllCells provides consistently high quality products, which reduces variation within our customers’ experimental projects. I am an extremely experienced research scientist, so I understand very well how to produce high quality cell products. Therefore, I personally created our standard operating procedures (SOP’s) based upon my years of laboratory experience with producing high quality cell products. I also trained all legacy employees how to make high quality cell products. Over almost 20 years of our business, AllCells has accumulated superior SOPs and implemented professional quality management systems that ensure consistently high quality products get delivered to our clients.
Third, we are always flexible and willing to meet customer’s special requests, such as particular donor attributes, customized cell types, or tailor-made packaging. Additionally, AllCells has established its own proprietary Donor Management System in its clinical division that allows us to manage over 10,000 donors. This Donor Management System can efficiently identify which donor will meet a customer’s special request. AllCells has dedicated teams that quickly respond to customized requests from customers and meet these needs within very short periods of time.
Cade Hildreth: Those are impressive advantages! When was AllCell’s first wholly-owned tissue collection facility set-up and what was the significance of that milestone?
Dr. Jay Tong: It was over 10 years ago that AllCells established its wholly-owned tissue collection facility in San Francisco. Previously, AllCells was dependent on sourcing tissues from a local hospital, which put limitations on our capabilities and ability to be flexible and scale-up with our clients.
Having our own donor centers and managing our donor pool with trained specialists has allowed us to have much greater control over our operations and enabled us to be flexible and meet client demands more rapidly. We believe researchers should not have to plan their experiments around a supplier’s schedule.
Cade Hildreth: You recently expanded by opening up a second tissue collection facility on the East Coast in Boston. What was the reason for this expansion?
Dr. Jay Tong: I am very excited about our Quincy, Massachusetts operation. This expansion significantly increases our donor pool, serves our east coast clients with quicker delivery, and allows us to provide same-day delivery. It also provides geographic placement near the Greater Boston area and positions us in proximity to our European customers.
Cade Hildreth: Since AllCells now has the capacity to source cells from multiple donor centers, how does this aid in matching the “right cells” to each client?
Dr. Jay Tong: Increasing our donor pool increases our ability to serve our clients. It is that simple. We see increasing demand for healthy human tissue, so expanding our donor pool to a second geographic location enables us to fulfill client requests at an even higher level.
With all of our new donors now being HLA-typed, having an expanded donor pool managed from two separate donor centers enables us to meet highly customized client requests for targeted human tissue collections and allows us to enable and accelerate customer research.
Cade Hildreth: What other problems do your cells solve for your clients?
Dr. Jay Tong: The last thing that a client wants to worry about is sourcing cells. We recently expanded our network of oncology and autoimmune clinics, which enables us to increase our inventory of diseased primary cells and tissues for researchers that require diseased collections in addition to healthy controls.
When it comes to sourcing, isolating, characterizing, and working with human primary blood cells in the lab, we always keep our clients in mind to reduce their workload. That is why our AllCellutionsTM cell enumeration and immunophenotyping services allow clients to receive characterized cells/tissue, better equipped for immediate use in downstream applications.
Cade Hildreth: What differences do you see with assays run on frozen versus fresh cells?
Dr. Jay Tong: Very good question, and I am glad you asked. For many assays, in our lab analyses we see minimal differences in terms of cell biological functions between cryopreserved and fresh cells. This is consistent with our orders which are split between fresh and frozen products. Many of our customers find that the flexibility in scheduling their experiments outweighs any possible difference which may be seen in a less sensitive assay.
On the flip side, in some cell types such as a dendritic cells differentiation assay, the cells are derived from (CD14+) cells, and here we have seen a better result with fresh versus cryopreserved cells. Other customers may want to isolate RNA or perform in vitro functional assays on cells that are minimally manipulated and free of possible effects from the cryopreservation and thawing process to assess cells that are as close as possible to their native, in vivo state.
Another example is that some cells such as neutrophils are too fragile to be frozen. Neutrophils must be delivered in fresh format. Finally, we often are asked by our customers to perform cell isolations from a Leuko Pak, for example when they are looking for CD34+ cells, and in this case we will get a higher yield from fresh cells.
For customers that want to evaluate cells with the absolute minimum perturbation from their native in vivo state, we have the capability to perform standard and custom phenotyping and functional assays on cells obtained within a few hours of donor tissue collections.
Cade Hildreth: As you approach your 20th year in business, what is your vision for the next 20 years for AllCells?
Dr. Jay Tong: Our vision includes two key aspects:
First, optimizing our operating flow and system to dramatically reduce the costs of sourcing tissues and isolating cell products. In return, we can pass the savings onto researchers so that their costs of running life saving projects can be reduced. In this way, we will be making contributions that will save more patients lives with more affordable drugs and treatments.
Second, we will develop cell therapy technologies through licensing opportunities to directly serve patients’ needs to improve human life and health.