PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A new spinal stimulation technology to treat chronic neuropathic pain. Better testing of oncology drugs to protect the heart. An X-ray detector with higher sensitivity and lower radiation. Each of those emergent technologies serves as the centerpiece of a Brown University research project that will receive up to $150,000 through the Brown Biomedical Innovations to Impact accelerator fund.
For the past four years, BBII has supported the development of new technologies like the three new awardees for 2022 by providing funding for biomedical research projects with commercial potential. Proposed projects are evaluated by an advisory committee that includes venture capitalists and experts in the pharmaceutical and medical device business, and each awarded project demonstrates the potential to have a near-term impact on an urgent medical problem.
“We look for proposals that are focused on development of a biomedical product — a medical device, diagnostic or therapeutic — that addresses a clear unmet need,” said Karen Bulock, managing director of BBII. “Evaluation criteria also include scientific merit, feasibility of commercialization path, intellectual property protection and the strength of the project team.”
Launched in 2018 with $8 million in support from Brown donors, BBII is managed 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. Dr. Mukesh K. Jain, dean of medicine and biological sciences, noted that multiple new faculty-led startups are based on BBII accelerator funding and illustrate the success of the program in helping to bridge the gap between federal funding for research and private investment.
“BBII funds help to accelerate the timeline for turning our faculty’s research findings into products or devices that have clinical impact,” Jain said. “That’s critically important not only to help the patients who need these treatments, but also to enhance economic and workforce opportunities for our Rhode Island community.”
Among the early BBII success stories are PedialyDx and XM Therapeutics.
In 2020, Brown faculty members Barry Lester and Stephen Sheinkopf — both of whom specialize in psychiatry, human behavior and pediatrics — received a BBII award to develop diagnostic tools based on acoustic signatures from infant cries. A new startup, PedialyDx, has been formed based on the technology to further develop and commercialize it. The company’s first product will be a diagnostic tool to determine if the cries of an infant with prenatal opioid exposure meet the criteria for neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome.
Separately, with support from BBII funds awarded in 2019, Jeffrey Morgan, a professor of medical science and engineering, developed a process to make biomaterials from cultured human heart cells. These extracellular matrix particles have the potential to be used as a treatment to help the heart heal after a heart attack, and a company called XM Therapeutics has been formed to further develop this technology and eventually test the therapeutic in clinical trials.
As those and other projects awarded during BBII’s first three cycles continue to move forward, work by the three teams behind the technologies awarded in 2022 is now underway. Below is an overview of each of the selected projects for 2022.
Developing a high sensitivity, low dose X-ray detector
Angus Kingon, a professor of entrepreneurship and engineering, and Ou Chen, an associate professor of chemistry, will build upon research at Brown that led to the development and patenting of a proof-of-concept novel X-ray scintillation detector, which has demonstrated both an order of magnitude improved resolution, and a means to reduce the radiation dose rate. The proposed work outlines a plan to test two parallel methods with the potential to optimize loading of the scintillant and a plan to scale a prototype to the size needed to be tested with a potential commercial partner.
Testing the cardiac side effects of oncology drugs
Kareen Coulombe, an associate professor of engineering, and team members Bum-Rak Choi, an associate professor of medicine (research), and Ulrike Mende, a professor of medicine, received a BBII award in 2020 for research to make therapeutic drugs safer for the heart. With an additional round of BBII funding in 2022, the team will continue to develop an in-vitro cardiac tissue model platform for drug discovery and cardiotoxicology testing. With the first round of funds, the team scaled up the throughput; tested the impact of cardiac fibroblasts from different donors; and developed, tested and validated a panel of quality control compounds for the cardiotoxicology model. In the current project, the team will expand the model to be able to test for cardiac side effects of oncology drugs, and also to discover and select drugs that can be used to mitigate or treat the cardiac side effects.
Managing chronic neuropathic pain through spinal cord stimulation
Vikas Srivastava, an assistant professor of engineering, and Albert Telfeian, a professor of neurosurgery, will develop a novel implantable lead for a spinal cord electrical stimulation device to manage chronic neuropathic pain. Currently in the market, there are two types of leads approved for use: a surgically implantable paddle lead and a thin cylindrical lead that can be inserted with a needle. In each case, the lead is positioned in the epidural space. The proposed new lead will be made of nitinol, a material that is capable of shape memory (currently used in expandable implanted stents), that can be inserted with a needle. Once placed in the epidural space, it will expand to the correct shape. The advantage would be to achieve better contact than can be achieved with the cylindrical lead, while avoiding the surgery required for the larger paddle lead. The proposal covers having a working prototype made by a contractor, then testing the prototype in-vitro and piloting in-vivo studies.