Like many high-tech startups, Endomimetics is all about making connections. Except its business model focuses on cells rather than cellphones.
The company grew out of a collaboration between cardiologist Brigitta Brott, M.D., and biomedical engineer Ho-Wook Jun, Ph.D. In their UAB labs, the researchers had developed a substance known as a bionanomatrix. It mimics the endothelium — the tissue lining our blood vessels. The discovery had significant commercial potential. Studies suggested that coating a cardiac stent with the bionanomatrix would reduce clotting. It could also prevent the narrowing of the artery known as restenosis — a common post-operative complication.
In 2010, Jun and Brott licensed the technology from the UAB Research Foundation (now known as the Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship). They set up shop at Birmingham’s Innovation Depot, an incubator that hosts a wide range of UAB-born companies. Then they started gathering the crucial data a fledgling biotech firm needs to convince risk-averse medical device manufacturers to invest. Scientific analysis and market research also pointed to new uses for the coating. Now, two major Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the National Institutes of Health are providing more than $1 million in seed money to jumpstart the company’s work. The payoff could be better health for patients around the world, and an economic boost for Birmingham and Alabama.
Proving a prohealing approach
“Implanted devices such as stents, platinum microcoils for treatment of brain aneurysms, vascular grafts and indwelling catheters have revolutionized patient care,” said Brott, a professor in the Department of Medicine at the UAB School of Medicine and director of the school’s Interventional Cardiology Fellowship Program. “Improving the body’s acceptance of these devices, through reducing blood clot formation, scar tissue growth over these devices, and inflammatory responses, holds the promise of further improvements for patients. Deployment of these coatings could improve the lives of millions.”
The bionanomatrix can provide a “prohealing” environment on a wide range of devices, adds Jun, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint department of the UAB School of Engineering and UAB School of Medicine. “The innovation of the bionanomatrix is to transform injured vessels to a healthy condition. Thus, this has great potential to be applied to many different biomedical applications.”
That means significant revenue potential — along with jobs and other economic benefits that could reach all Alabamians. But before Endomimetics can attract major investments from industry leaders, it has to prove that its technology works in crucial pre-clinical tests. And these tests aren’t covered by basic-science research grants.
"Deployment of these coatings could improve the lives of millions."
— Brigitta Brott
Startups are big business. Many economists argue that they are responsible for the vast majority of new jobs created in the United States every year. And research universities are a fertile breeding ground for these new companies. According to a 2015 report, alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone have founded more than 30,000 companies, employing 4.6 million people and generating $1.9 trillion in revenues.
Brott, herself an MIT alumna who has also trained or worked at Harvard, Duke and Vanderbilt, says UAB offers opportunities for collaboration and support “that are unique among high-powered institutions.” This support “has allowed Jun and me to be able to turn this research into a company that can bring additional jobs to Alabama.”
The federal SBIR program offers research and development funding to small businesses like Endomimetics. Last year, the company learned it would receive two SBIR Phase 1 grants, each roughly $500,000, from the National Institutes of Health.
Blocking blood flow
One grant is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. It will be used to test and optimize the bionanomatrix coating for platinum microcoils, a common treatment for cerebral aneurysms. These weak spots in the brain’s arteries affect up to 10 million Americans, Jun says. When the aneurysms rupture, as happens about 30,000 times per year, they are often fatal. Microcoils aim to occlude — that is, block — blood flow to the weakened area so that it won’t burst. But aneurysms recur in 30 percent of patients treated with microcoils. “An important factor appears to be delayed and incomplete endothelialization and cell coverage over the coils, which are required for durable occlusion,” Jun said.
Jun and Brott will work with Ramanathan Kadirvel, Ph.D., and David Kallmes, M.D., in the Department of Radiology at the Mayo Clinic, to evaluate bionanomatrix-coated coils in an established animal model of aneurysms.
"UAB has provided a unique environment in which engineers and clinicians can work together to develop an innovative idea to tackle clinically significant problems."
— Ho-Wook Jun
Promoting AVF maturation
More than half a million patients in the United States are dependent on dialysis treatments to filter toxins from their bloodstream after their kidneys fail. To maintain steady access for the dialysis machines, most of these patients get an arteriovenous fistula (AVF) — a surgical procedure that fuses a major artery and vein together. “When you need dialysis, you have to have a needle put in three times a week to get the fluid exchanged,” Brott said. “The best way to do that is to have a direct connection between the artery and vein.” But 60 percent of AVFs fail, bringing an annual treatment cost of more than $1 billion.
With their second SBIR grant, funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Jun and Brott are collaborating with UAB’s Timmy Lee, M.D., an associate professor in the UAB Division of Nephrology, to see if their bionanomatrix coating can improve AVF formation. “Developing a coating that promotes AVF maturation may have significant impact in the treatment of patients requiring dialysis,” Jun said.
“UAB has provided a unique environment in which engineers and clinicians can work together to develop an innovative idea to tackle clinically significant problems,” Jun said. “We have had so much support from the School of Engineering, School of Medicine and the Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship here at UAB.”
“Endomimetics is an excellent example of the way in which technologies created by faculty at UAB can generate a strong positive impact on Alabama’s economy,” said Kathy Nugent, Ph.D., director of the Harbert Institute. “We look forward to Endomimetics developing products and services based on these technologies and moving them quickly into clinical use for the benefit of the public.”