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The material of healing is delicate. Medicines, vaccines, blood—much of it must be stored with care and administered with precision. The need for such stability and control increases costs and decreases convenience—neither of which benefit those in need. For Vaxess Technologies, the solution to these challenges is not a synthetic preservative or a complex drug-delivery device. It’s natural, water soluble, and inexpensive—silk.
The biotech and life sciences startup, helmed by Michael Schrader, uses technology born out of the SilkLab at Tufts University in its novel approaches to stabilization and delivery of delicate pharmaceutical material.
Vaxess is developing a patch, roughly the size of a postage stamp, containing rows of silk microneedles that can be loaded with an array of medicines and vaccines. After a brief application, the patch is removed, leaving behind the tips of the medicine-filled microneedles painlessly within the patient. At once delicate and resilient, the microneedles dissolve at a precise rate, releasing medicine at its most effective dose and for the most effective length of time. Schrader pitches its potential like this: “five minutes of wear time enables two weeks of medicine delivery.”
Schrader, while studying at Harvard Business School in 2011, was exposed to groundbreaking silk technology out of David Kaplan and Fiorenzo Omenetto’s labs in a course called Commercializing Science (now called Lab to Market).
The potential of silk immediately impressed Schrader, an engineer by training who had spent the early part of his career designing high-performance polymer parts for the auto industry. “I had simply never seen a material like it,” he notes.
His co-founders, Kathryn Kosuda, Livio Valenti, Patrick Ho, Professor David Kaplan, and Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto were similarly taken by the possibilities of silk and its potential to reshape a range of industries. Valenti, in particular, had a personal connection to the material. He had worked for the United Nations in Cambodia, helping rice farmers convert their fields to silk, a higher value product. While this silk did not meet the requirements for luxury textiles, it was well suited to other buyers, like Kaplan and Omenetto’s lab. Valenti is now driven to help create stable, effective, easily-distributed treatments for the Cambodian people, made from Cambodian silk.
In early 2012, Schrader, Kosuda, Valenti, and Ho won the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge and the Harvard New Venture Competition for their work on what would become Vaxess. Since then, the startup has received over $14M in non-dilutive funding from various sources such as The Gates Foundation, The National Institutes of Health, and The National Science Foundation. Vaxess has also maintained joint development partnerships with multiple pharmaceutical companies.
The ability for the Vaxess patch, named MIMIX, to reliably deliver controlled amounts of treatment over a precise amount of time, is not only more convenient for the patient, it is often more efficacious. In the case of immunotherapies and vaccines, the sustained delivery provided by MIMIX allows the patient’s body to react in a manner similar to if its immune system were reacting to a natural infection—a slow, strong, and enduring ramp-up of immune response.
Remarkably, in the first MIMIX flu vaccine mouse study, the patch led to immune responses to influenza strains not included in the vaccine. The team was stunned. Such a response is never seen with a traditional flu vaccine. It was a validating and encouraging result as the startup works to target other mutating pathogens like pneumonia.
Vaxess is also pioneering a blood stabilization technology for diagnostic testing. Using the natural properties of silk fibroin to “cocoon” biological matter, the startup looks to enable patients to more readily get treatment by enabling collection and shipping of delicate blood samples.
As a biotech and life sciences company with novel core technology, Vaxess is in the unique position to do good while doing well. With more effective, more stable treatments, suddenly a world of healthcare is open to those for whom it was previously inaccessible.