Vizgen’s Terry Lo on Creating Maps of Biology’s Backroads

December 27, 2022

By Allison Proffitt 

December 27, 2022 | Terry Lo has been in healthcare for almost 25 years, with business and commercial roles across pharma, diagnostics, and life sciences, but his most recent role—CEO at Vizgen—connects him with what he calls, “without a doubt the most exciting space I’ve been involved with. It’s really been pretty amazing to see all of the enthusiasm and momentum we’ve gained in the spatial biology field.”  

On the latest episode of the Trends from the Trenches podcast, Lo speaks with BioTeam’s Stan Gloss about spatial biology, why it matters, and how he imagines the technology changing healthcare’s future.  

Lo describes spatial biology as creating connections between two different scientific approaches: visual histology and molecular markers. If genomics is the molecular starting point for biology, histology is an image of the end result, he explains. “The challenge has always been that these two have been very separate fields of science and technology. Now we have this ability to bring them together. And that’s really how you get spatial biology.”   

It’s one of the biggest challenges in the life sciences, he told Gloss. “This ability to understand within a biological system what’s happening.” Spatial biology reveals what’s happening and where it’s happening.  

“We’re actually able to see now that there’re different types of cells that are collected together in certain, we call them, neighborhoods. They have certain ways of interacting with each other and they have certain functions. Each cell has a different role to play within those neighborhoods.” 

What we’re learning, Lo continues, is that cells behave differently with different neighbors. “The way that they function, they way that they act, can change dramatically based on the environment that they’re in. That environment is really influenced by the other cells that are around them… You not only have different cell types—T cell or B cell or tumor cell—but we also have cells states in gene expression where they’re acting in a certain way even though they are one type of cell… It really is related to their spatial context: who’s around them and how they’re interacting.”  

Cell or tissue mapping is a description Lo and Vizgen like to use. “There are a lot of initiatives that have started over the last few years to do this type of tissue mapping,” Lo explains. Vizgen launched its own spatial genomics mouse brain map last year. It’s an improvement, he says, over genomics. “With single cell genomics you’re really disassociating that tissue so you’ve got these individual cells... What you end up with, instead of having an atlas or map, is more like a dictionary. You’ve got your cell, you’ve got the definition of what that cell is, but you don’t really know how it [behaves] in context.”   

Spatial biology, Lo believes, fills in the context, creating more complete images of healthy and diseased tissues so we can better understand disease onset and progression. Lo believes this will be particularly valuable in neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases. Vizgen is working closely with the Allen Brain Institute, he says, to apply Vizgen’s MERSCOPE platform to map brains. “It is just amazing to see the amount of data that gets generated from even one mouse brain!” he says.  

Vizgen spun out of Harvard University in 2019, licensing the MERFISH technology: multiplexed error robust fluorescence in situ hybridization. MERFISH is massively multiplexed single molecule imaging technology capable of simultaneously measuring the copy number and spatial distribution of hundreds to thousands of RNA species across hundreds of thousands of individual cells. Vizgen launched the commercialized version of the technology—their MERSCOPE platform—at AGBT in 2021.  

Vizgen’s primary goal right now, Lo said, is scaling the company and widening adoption of the platform. Then, he says, we can begin “looking for what these clinical applications or the clinical value will be downstream by using these scientific data.”