Brown to fund biomedical technologies with commercial potential, patient benefits

Brown Biomedical Innovations to Impact awards projects focused on analyzing infant cries for signs of opioid withdrawal, developing a malaria vaccine and accelerating medical solutions into commercial technologies.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Ranging from technology that analyzes the cries of infants for signs of opioid withdrawal to gene therapy treatment for post-traumatic osteoarthritis, five projects led by Brown University research teams have each been awarded $100,000 to help translate their scientific discoveries into commercial products that benefit patients.

In its second annual cycle of awards, Brown Biomedical Innovations to Impact (BBII) also supported projects that aim to develop a malaria vaccine, reduce dangerous fungal infections and improve the safety of new drugs by testing them for possible toxicity to the heart.

Karen Bulock, managing director of BBII, said the goal of commercial development program launched by the University in 2018 “is to support biomedical technologies that need additional work to become products that have commercialization potential,” explaining there is often a gap between the time when federal research funding ends and private investors are ready to invest.

BBII, an accelerator fund that supports academic biomedical technologies that have potential for making a substantial impact in health care, is run by the University’s Division of Biology and Medicine in collaboration with Brown Technology Innovations, part of the Office of the Vice President for Research.

“We have been focused on supporting and building capacity for translational science,” said Dr. Jack A. Elias, senior vice president for health affairs and dean of medicine and biological sciences. “The BBII awards have been a great tool to help researchers move their discoveries along that pathway toward commercialization.”

With an ultimate goal of launching new products and companies based on Brown research findings, BBII is part of Brown and the Innovation Economy — an initiative launched in 2018 outlining a set of strategic actions for how the University can best contribute to innovation and the growth of stable, well-paying jobs in Rhode Island. BBII was started with $8 million in philanthropic gifts from Brown donors.

“BBII is a cornerstone of Brown’s efforts to inspire and support innovative research that will improve people’s lives, including treatments and cures for diseases,” said Jill Pipher, vice president for research.

The five projects awarded in 2020 add to a set of projects funded in BBII’s first award cycle in 2019. Project proposals were reviewed by an advisory committee that includes venture capitalists and experts in the pharmaceutical business. The faculty members leading each project will receive initial funding beginning this month and additional funds as they meet milestones. Below is an overview of the selected projects.

Advancing gene therapy for osteoarthritis

Qian Chen, a professor of orthopedic research and medical science, is developing a gene therapy treatment for post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA). PTOA is a condition caused by physical trauma, such as sports injuries and fractures, which affects about 5.6 million people in the U.S. annually. His laboratory is developing genetic treatment of PTOA through non-viral delivery of the IL-1Ra gene, using a technology called Nanopieces that it has established. The goals are to develop the first disease-modifying drug for PTOA and to increase the commercial potential for Nanopieces to become a platform technology for broader gene therapy delivery.

Making therapeutic drugs safer for the heart

During the development process, new drugs must be tested for harmful effects on the heart, called cardiotoxicity, and this project aims to develop a more predictive human cell-based test to establish safe drug exposures. The team of Kareen Coulombe, an assistant professor of engineering and medical science, Bum-Rak Choi, an associate professor of medicine (research), and Ulrike Mende, a professor of medicine, has built a new human cardiotoxicity testing platform using engineered 3D human heart microtissues from stem cells to quantify dose-dependent changes in electrical activity. The project’s comprehensive arrhythmia risk assessment of test compounds is aimed at streamlining drug development, reducing the risk for life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias and advancing safe drugs for patients.

Developing antibodies to fight malaria

Jonathan Kurtis, chair of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School, is developing antibody-based therapeutics for malaria. Malaria is a leading cause of death in developing countries, infecting hundreds of millions of individuals and killing more than 450,000 children each year. The spread of parasites resistant to compounds threatens recent progress achieved by antimalarial campaigns and underscores the urgent need to identify new antimalarial therapeutics. In previous work, Kurtis and his team discovered PfGARP, a previously unrecognized vaccine candidate. In this project, the lab will focus on developing highly effective monoclonal antibodies targeting PfGARP.

Analyzing infants’ cries for signs of opioid withdrawal

Barry Lester, director of the Center for the Study of Children at Risk at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, is searching for signs in newborn infants of opioid withdrawal or Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). His lab’s technology provides an objective measure of their cries and could improve the accuracy of NAS diagnosis. The research team is developing a handheld device to be used by nurses and physicians that will use a cloud-based algorithm to determine if an infant’s cry meets criteria for NAS. Improving the diagnosis would provide better treatment for these infants, reduce hospital stays and lower costs, the researchers say.

Evaluating the effectiveness of antifungal nanoparticles

Anita Shukla, an assistant professor of engineering, is working to reduce dangerous fungal infections that have high mortality rates and often involve long-term and costly treatment. This research will involve antifungal liposomal nanoparticles developed in the lab, which have the potential to overcome challenges including reducing toxicity of anti-fungal compounds. The lab will complete in vitro and in vivo characterization of nanoparticles enhanced with fungi-targeting agents and investigate their effectiveness.