Their website says it all: "Small solutions to big problems," and it's more than a marketing slogan.
It's one reason ToleRaM Nanotech, LLC, a startup company that specializes in merging bioengineering with medicine, recently won a National TechConnect Innovation Award. The award is given for technology that has the potential to make a difference in a special sector -- in this case, medicine. The top 15 percent of submitted technologies win the prestigious award.
The genius behind the company comes from the synergy of a physician-scientist team at the Medical University of South Carolina that's interested in research into the targeted delivery of drugs to decrease rejection of transplanted organs. The three founders of the company, which was formed in January 2014, are Carl Atkinson, Ph.D., an expert in immunology and the innate immune system; Ann-Marie Broome, Ph.D., a biomedical engineer who has her MBA in bioscience entrepreneurship; and Satish N. Nadig, M.D., Ph.D., a transplant surgeon who has a Ph.D. in immunology.
Nadig, the company's chief medical officer, said he wants to see better outcomes for transplant recipients who often succumb to the systemic side effects of standard immunosuppression treatment. "We are honored to be recognized for the positive impact of the novel technology that could revolutionize the way doctors deliver medications in transplantation."
The three MUSC scientists have successfully demonstrated in mouse models a way to deliver the immunosuppressant rapamycin via a nanocarrier to a transplanted kidney and its local environment only, leaving the rest of the body's immune system unaffected. Although rapamycin is a highly effective immunosuppressant that encourages proliferation of suppressive T-cells, it is seldom used in the clinic for transplant patients because of its global side effects, such as slowing wound healing.
"What ails our transplant patients is that all of them are susceptible to infections, cancers, diabetes and general systemic consequences of their very powerful immunosuppressant medications," said Nadig. "It's a double-edged sword, because they need these medications to keep them from rejecting their organs."
The team's rapamycin nanocarrier, referred to as TRaM for targeted rapamycin micelle, allows the drug to be used to help prevent kidney rejection without causing such undesired side effects.
Nadig said their research could revolutionize the way doctors deliver medications in transplantation. "It potentially will lower rejection of a transplanted organ while allowing the patient to be able to fight off infection and go about a normal life. This is exciting to the team, given that 20 percent of people on the transplant list need a re-transplant because they've lost their organ to chronic rejection," he said.
Broome, who helps develop the nanocarriers in their research, said nanotechnology will have exciting impacts on many areas in medicine. Nanotechnology is medicine, engineering, chemistry and biology all bundled together and conducted at the nanoscale, between the range of 1 to 1,000 nanometers. For comparison, a thin newspaper page is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
"We take FDA-approved drugs that have chemical characteristics ideal for packaging but that have significant side effects associated with them, thereby limiting their widespread use," Broome said. "We encapsulate the drugs to put them in stealth mode and deliver them specifically to a localized region. They are released only to that area, eliminating the adverse side effects."
Atkinson said the potential goes well beyond transplantation. "By packaging and targeting drugs, we can protect them from the often toxic microenvironment they will encounter in the body and thus improve their efficacy," he said.
According to Atkinson, the collaboration is an example of team science at its best. "One of the best things about MUSC is that we have various disciplines in close proximity, such as having a surgeon talk to an engineer who talks to an immunologist, and we all come together to form a delivery platform that has very sophisticated immunologic and mechanistic abilities in a very sick patient population. That's the coolest thing about this."