A showcase at UNC-Chapel Hill highlights innovations coming from labs on campus that turn into companies, jobs and new therapies and diagnostics.

By Rose Hoban

In old episodes of Star Trek, medical care in the 24th century looks a lot less invasive and a lot less painful. Bones McCoy waves a wand over his patient to get readings on heart rate. Beverly Crusher uses a light probe to deliver medications or stop internal bleeding.

Just science fiction?

Neuroscientist Mohanish Deshmukh describes his research into a molecule that has potential to arrest degeneration of nerve cells that occurs in Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Photo credit: Rose Hoban
Neuroscientist Mohanish Deshmukh describes his research into a molecule that has the potential to arrest degeneration of nerve cells that occurs in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Not in the minds of some researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill. Ideas like these were presented at the sixth annual Innovation Showcase at the Kenan School of Business Thursday evening, an event to demonstrate new companies, patents and potential business plans being created by researchers in many departments on the UNC campus.

“What do we need to do?” asked David Lawrence, a professor of pharmacy and chemistry at UNC. “Do we need to wait for the 24th century?

“Well, I’m not a patient man. I have no interest in waiting three centuries to see this.”

Making science fiction reality

Lawrence proposed waiting only three years until physicians have a technology that could use light to release chemicals or drugs at the point where they’ll do the most good in a sick patient.

One of the drugs Lawrence said he wants to target is doxorubicin, a powerful agent that’s effective on cancer cells but causes heart damage as soon as it enters the body. His idea is to use red blood cells to deliver the doxorubicin in minuscule doses directly to the tumor, reducing the toxicity.

“Nothing happens until we flash this system with light and it’s just a tenth-of-a-second light pulse,” Lawrence said. “And with that tenth of a second, the phototherapeutic is released … and enters the cancer cells.”

The PhysioCam would allow physicians to detect a patient's heart rate, along with other biometric measurements, using only a video camera. Photo courtesy Maria Davila
The PhysioCam would allow physicians to detect a patient’s heart rate, along with other biometric measurements, using only a video camera. Photo courtesy Maria Davila

Lawrence has started the process of creating a company that would make this technique of drug delivery commercially viable and bring it to the health sciences marketplace.

Another presenter evoking Star Trek was Greg Lewis from the bioengineering department.

“Imagine a medical world where a doctor can look into your body without hooking you up to a machine,“ Lewis told the audience. “They can just peer inside you and see the workings of your organs.”

Then he described taking consumer-grade digital video cameras and applying a computer algorithm to the images to determine what’s happening to someone’s heart beat.

“The Physiocam is a device that reads your heart rate; it actually sees your heart beating by looking at your face,” Lewis said. “We can measure your heart rate so precisely in real time because we can look at … the timing between subsequent beats.”

He said that gives doctors information about stress and other physiological challenges.

Potentially, the camera could reveal whether a person at airport security is nervous, whether a patient waiting in an emergency room is getting sicker or if someone is developing a fever 24 to 48 hours before the person’s body temperature starts to rise, just by taking a video of a face.

Roadmap to innovation

The innovators and entrepreneurs at Thursday’s event were looking for collaborators, funders and connections with people who might be interested in working together and adding knowledge or funding to their projects.

The event was sponsored by the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an office created by former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp that serves as the umbrella for entrepreneurship, commercialization and economic development of ideas that come from within the university.

“Think of yourself on a journey … and there’s a fork in the road and you meet somebody, and they say, ‘You should go here,’ and so you go with them,” said Judith Cone, who leads the office. “We don’t want the process to be so random.”

Hundreds of researchers, venture capitalists, industry representatives and students attended Thursday's event at UNC-Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Rose Hoban
Hundreds of researchers, venture capitalists, industry representatives and students attended Thursday’s event at UNC-Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Cone said a large cross-discipline working group was formed to create a road map, called Innovation Carolina, in 2010. That roadmap has served as a guide to making UNC more entrepreneurial.

“We want to help everyone with an idea, regardless of whether its going to be patented or be a social venture. We want to help you on that journey,” Cone said.

Some of the ideas could be spun off into a company, some might stay within the university or some might get picked up and licensed by an existing biotechnology company to create a new product.

The room was full of funding “angel investors,” industry representatives and venture capitalists, including the Hatteras Venture Partners, a Durham-based firm that focuses on new life sciences companies.

“We had a company, G1 Therapeutics…. Hatteras was the lead investor with $6 million,” said Cone, referring to a UNC-generated company that focuses on cancer drugs. “And [Hatteras] brought in some more, and I think the next round of funding was about $30 million.”

Success stories

“I can tell you from my own experience that Carolina does a really, really good job at fostering entrepreneurs inside the university … professors, students, faculty,” said David Levin, CEO of Bivarus, a company that came out of research on patient satisfaction. “They make it very easy to start companies.”

Bivarus uses a sophisticated computer algorithm to send a 10-item questionnaire directly to a patient’s cell phone within a couple of days of the patient’s encounter with a clinic or hospital instead of sending a paper patient-satisfaction survey. Administrators can get a handle on problems in the clinical setting almost in real time, and the service is being used in several UNC Hospitals divisions, including the emergency department.

“It’s been wonderful to be able to go to the Office of Technology and Development, or go to our customers at UNC Health Care, tell them the value proposition and say, ‘How can we help you,’” Levin said.

He said the company wasn’t really looking for money – yet – on Thursday evening, but they were looking to get some publicity. He said Bivarus currently has eight employees and about $250,000 in annual revenue, but projects having $1 million in annual revenue within a year.

“Our growth has been pretty steady over the past year,” he said. “As you get a critical mass of customers, the growth starts to look like a hockey stick.”

John Taylor was another CEO presenting an early-stage company, this time an organization built around a therapeutic discovery that came from a UNC lab.

Taylor’s company, Spyryx Biosciences, got an initial start with money from Carolina KickStart, a fund at the School of Medicine that gives grants to fund the translation of research into actual patient therapies.

Company co-founder Rob Tarran discovered a peptide in his lab that allows for the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis to function better. The mucous in the lungs of someone with cystic fibrosis is thick and sticky, leading to multiple infections and scarring. About 80 percent of patients with cystic fibrosis die from pulmonary complications.

Since launch, Tarran has been able to raise upwards of $50 million to develop the peptide into a drug that will treat people with cystic fibrosis, which is considered an “orphan disease” because it affects fewer than 100,000 annually.

But Taylor said the drug could also be used to treat people with lung diseases, such as emphysema, caused by smoking and air pollution, which is a potentially huge market. Spyryx has licensed the rights to Tarran’s findings from UNC-Chapel Hill, so if the drug becomes a blockbuster some of that money would flow back to the university.

“They translated those ideas into practical benefit,” Cone said. ”They did not just leave them in the lab.”

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