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 It tends to be a bit more complicated than a chocolate-in-the-peanut-butter moment, but every Gates Center- related medical startup has that instant where a break in mindset led to promising discovery.
For eye surgeon Jeffrey Olson, M.D., and what would soon become AmpVision LLC, the “a-ha!” moment came as he was researching treatment for an entirely different part of the body – kidneys. Olson and other eye specialists spend a large amount of their time dealing with macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, affecting more than 10 million people in the U.S. alone.
Both conditions produce too much
protein inside the eye. Olson’s team had been studying the possibility of “cell encapsulation,” which puts therapeutic materials inside tiny polymers for long- term release. As they looked at different membranes, they stopped suddenly on kidney dialysis, which relies on a sophisticated external pump-and-filter system to clean the bloodstream.
“We saw reports of kidney patients being inflammatory-deficient,” Olson said. “For them, it was an unwanted side effect.” The dialysis process filtered out “good” inflammatories. “For us, there’s too much protein in the eye, and it causes inflammation. So, why not use the side effect as the treatment?”
The result of the epiphany is a manufactured device the diameter of a pencil eraser that is meant to be implanted in the eye and filter out excess proteins over time. The device is modeled to last for years, eliminating monthly needle-stick injections in each eye – “that’s 700 needle sticks in a lifetime,” Olson notes.
“It’s like putting an air filter in the room instead of spraying in an air cleaner,” he said.
Even with his third startup, Olson can’t take the next steps alone, he said.
“The toughest thing we run into every time is the ‘valley of death’ – you’ve got a great idea, you pitch it, they love it, and they say, ‘If you can raise $500,000 or $1 million to get it into patients, we’ll fund the $4 million clinical trial,’” Olson said. Neither Olson, an associate professor of ophthalmology at the School of Medicine who practices at UCHealth and the VA, nor his colleagues have that kind of walking-around money.
That’s where the Gates Center, the CU Innovations Office, the Grubstake Awards and the Gates Startup Toolbox enter the picture for the 118 Gates- member researchers hoping to take their technology toward patient treatment. Most researchers – many of whom are also busy clinical providers – need seed money, legal and regulatory expertise, and business advice to move their ideas along.
“The focus of doing research is for the betterment of humanity,” said Heather Callahan, Ph.D., J.D., EMBA, who is Entrepreneur in Residence at the Gates Center and CU Innovations. “If you just research it and never translate it into a product and get it on the market, it doesn’t have all the value it could have. It’s just the way our society has set this up. The commercial component is the critical piece to connect bench research to making patients better.”
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