BU Entrepreneurs Are Moving Two New Medical Devices Closer to Market

Could a wearable that emits ultrasound help transplant patients stave off organ rejection? Is there a better-designed ileostomy bag that could improve the fit and overall experience for wearers? Boston University graduate researchers with a penchant for innovation and entrepreneurship recently developed designs for these two medical devices-and their pitches have attracted interest and funding.

They did so with the help of MInT (short for Medical Innovation and Technology program), which was launched in spring 2021 by innovation-minded BU graduate students collaborating from the School of Medicine, College of Engineering, School of Public Health, and Questrom School of Business to empower early-career clinical scientists with hands-on medical device design experience.

“From the beginning I thought having [a pre-accelerator program] was a fantastic idea and very necessary to institute at BU to bridge the gap of entrepreneurial opportunities for advanced degree students here,” says Elissa Everton, a fifth-year student at BU School of Medicine and MInT’s program director.

MInT participants-14 in total-gathered virtually throughout spring 2021 to brainstorm and polish their projects with the goal of eventually going from the pitch presentation (think Shark Tank) to securing funding to eventually getting their devices in the hands of doctors and medical professionals.

“Teams first came to us with only general ideas of the projects they wanted to pursue,” Everton says. “By the end of [the MInT] program, they pitched solid, persuasive business plans with clear paths to commercialization.”

Over the summer, the teams of graduate researchers participated in a Pitch Day, presenting their medical device ideas to industry leaders and experts. Four teams of BU medical students pitched designs that won funding awards totaling about $12,000.

The reason I came to Boston from Spain is for these kinds of opportunities that allow you to advance science in many ways

Since its launch, MInT has merged with a national entrepreneurship nonprofit called Nucleate. Everton has become Nucleate’s vice president of operations.

“The merger is very exciting,” says MInT founder Shen Ning, a BU MD/PhD candidate studying neuroscience. She is now leading efforts to expand Nucleate in Europe.

Ning participated on one of the four Pitch Day teams with collaborators Dragana Savic and Pablo Elvira-altogether making up team INIA Biosciences-to create a non-invasive device that uses ultrasound to lessen the likelihood of a transplant recipient’s body rejecting a newly transplanted organ, such as a kidney.

Organ rejection happens because the body’s immune system sees the new organ as a foreign invader and attacks the new organ’s tissues. Team INIA’s ultrasound device is designed to work by suppressing this immune response by modulating certain nerve signals.

“[Organ transplant] patients are put on a cocktail of immunosuppressant drugs on a trial and error basis that could last for the rest of the patient’s life,” Ning says. She explains that this could not only have harmful side effects, but is also very expensive, costing more than $30,000 every year for each patient.

And according to the INIA team, those efforts don’t always pay off: about 30 percent of kidney transplants are rejected even despite the use of immunosuppressive drugs.

“We see our device as an opportunity to reduce these costs by dampening the immune system in a way that can also prevent a lot of the side effects associated with these drugs,” she says.

The team says their INIA device could also track the progress of organ acceptance into the body, sending an alert if rejection begins early on-potentially saving that organ from breaking down completely and allowing it to be re-transplanted into a patient that could be a better match.

The team’s medical device design was recently recognized as a “Deep Tech Pioneer” by technology start-up Hello Tomorrow, and accepted into a number of innovator challenges, including MassChallenge.

They are now focusing on the next steps in the lengthy process of bringing their device to market-submitting grant proposals for more research and development funding and looking to recruit more engineers to join the product development team.

Another MInT team, this one inspired by more personal medical experience, is also making strides on bringing their device design to market.

When BU biomedical scientist Guillermo Arroyo needed surgery to treat Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, he was temporarily left with an ileostomy.

When surgery involves removing part of the large intestine, a surgeon creates an ileostomy-an opening through the belly’s wall so that waste can leave the body without traveling all the way through the lower intestinal tract. Ileostomies, which bypass the large intestine, are quite common procedures for people battling certain types of bowel cancers or chronic illnesses. Typically, the stoma is connected to a waste collection bag or pouch by an adhesive sticker-something Arroyo says he quickly realized can lead to unpleasant leaks.

“The design hasn’t changed in any big way for decades,” Arroyo says. That’s what inspired him to think of “IleoPak,” a medical device that can attach to a stoma more effectively, replacing the adhesive sticker with a small tube that gets securely inserted into the stoma opening and attached to a waste collection pouch.

He also reimagined a better pouch design, creating one that is sturdier than current bags, and can also be more easily replaced without the patient needing to remove the stoma tube, reducing the possibility of accidental leakage or other difficulties in emptying waste from the pouch.

“The reason I came to Boston from Spain is for these kinds of opportunities that allow you to advance science in many ways,” Arroyo says.

He and his teammates-BU graduate student researchers Ronald Muscarella, Shriya Reddy, and Cristina Tous-came in first place in MInT’s Pitch Day competition. Now, Arroyo is creating IleoPak’s official company and business strategy, meeting with CEOs, lawyers, and medical technology experts to build expertise before spending their award money. They are also looking to expand their team and to create a scientific board, a step they say is critical for IleoPak to gain credibility with potential investors.

They eventually plan to get input from patients and work with a technical illustrator to keep improving their device design based on feedback from patients, physicians, and biomedical engineers.

“This project will be attacking the issue of inflammatory bowel disease, which is a chronic disease, in an impactful way,” Arroyo says. “That’s what motivates me.”

Nucleate, the national student entrepreneurship program that MInT has merged with, will hold an informational session for interested participants on October 12 in CILSE101 for students on the Charles River Campus and October 13 in L306 for MED School students.

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