As Pitt innovators continue to set new records for the amount of innovation coming from their classrooms and labs, the University has stepped up its support for translating those ideas and discoveries into products and services that can make a difference in peoples’ lives.
The Chancellor’s Gap Fund was reauthorized earlier this year to provide assistance for research projects that have demonstrated strong commercialization potential, but require key proof of concept experiments or other data or prototypes in order to attract interest from potential investors or industry partners.
The fund provides grants ranging from $25,000 to $75,000, based on what is needed to advance the project through a significant milestone. The first round of applications for the fund occurred this spring, attracting 65 expressions of interest.
The original Chancellor’s commercialization fund, established five years ago, provided support to several projects that resulted in the formation of startups spun out the University, including Lumis Corp. and ECM Therapeutics, and many others that are continuing on the path to impact.
“Taking an innovation that last mile from a research discovery in the lab to a market-ready product is not easy, with many hurdles to clear” said Evan Facher, Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Director of the Innovation Institute. “The Chancellor’s Gap Fund is intended to bridge those valleys of the commercialization process by providing funding needed to de-risk a discovery and bring its market potential more clearly into focus.”
Proposals went through a multi-step process involving a team drawn from the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), as well as an internal faculty review board. The 15 finalists were judged by an international external advisory panel drawn from industry and the venture capital community.
Three projects were selected for funding in this cohort. Here are brief profiles of each:
Vanish Therapeutics, Inc. ‑ Biodegradable Nerve Stimulator
Trent Emerick, Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine;
Tracy Cui, Department of Bioengineering;
Raj Kubendran, PhD, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
A biodegradable nerve stimulator to treat acute and chronic pain. The stimulator is an injectable wire that is placed under the skin near the nerve of interest using ultrasound. The device does not require an incision or surgery to be implanted and is considered minimally invasive. The electrical stimulation would produce a soothing vibration in the area of interest. The device degrades over 3-6 months, however ample evidence exists in the medical literature that shows that temporary nerve stimulation can lead to long term pain relief due to brain plasticity and central nervous system changes at the level of the spinal cord.
Currently, many patients with refractory pain who have failed conservative therapies turn to permanent steel surgical stimulators as an option. These devices are costly and have an overall complication rate of 30-40%. These steel stimulators require surgery and an incision, which leads to higher health care costs from surgery/anesthesia, and many other complications that a biodegradable lead avoids. Compliance is also an issue with the surgical devices.
A prototype of the biodegradable device has been developed. The Gap Fund award will be used to develop a pain model to test the biodegradable stimulator versus a control. Additionally, it will be used to develop the conceptual framework and prototype for the external battery pack and circuitry design. A company, Vanish Therapeutics, was spun out of the University.
Michael Schnetz , Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology;
Aman Mahajan, Chair, Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine
A clinical decision support, software application system for clinicians to more safely manage blood pressure levels during surgery that enhances the quality of care while reducing its cost. More than 70% of all surgical patients are exposed to low blood pressure, increasing the cost of care approximately $2.9 million per 10,000 patients. The TVI algorithm uses individual patient characteristics to generate personalized blood pressure parameters associated with lowest risk of low pressure events. This technology makes it possible for clinicians to identify and therapeutically target the safest blood pressures according to patients’ individual characteristics. The current standard of care is for low blood pressure events to be treated after they happen and have already inflicted damage to vital organ systems.
A prototype TVI software application has been created from more than $100,000 in early investment from the Coulter Program at the Swanson School of Engineering and the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at UPMC. TVI software application has been vetted by UPMC and approved for implementation and clinical testing.
Universal SNAP-CAR T Cell Therapy
Primary: Jason Lohmueller, Assistant Professor, Departments of Surgery and Immunology;
Secondary: Alexander Deiters, Professor, Department of Chemistry
Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy provides a personalized treatment for cancer that has led to remarkable long-lasting remissions in patients who previously had no other option. The extraordinary successes of CAR T therapy has led to the accelerated FDA approval of two therapies in 2017: Kymirah and Yescarta. To build on this current success the goal of the CAR T field is to treat other cancers using CAR T cells targeting different antigens to treat solid tumor patients, who are the majority of cancer patients.
The investigators have developed the SNAP “universal” CAR T cell platform technology, in which SNAP CAR T cells can be tailored to treat any tumor when combined with tumor-specific antibodies. Instead of directly recognizing a tumor cell, the SNAP CAR T cells have a receptor that binds to the benyzylguanine (BG) tag molecule attached to the co-administered tumor-targeting antibody. For therapy, the SNAP CAR T cells will be co-administered with one or more tagged antibodies targeting patient-specific tumor antigens. SNAP CAR T cells are a platform technology that can be combined with any tagged tumor-specific antibodies to potentially target many different tumor types, including both blood cancers and solid tumors.
The ultimate vision is that clinicians will perform diagnostic tests to determine what antigens are present on a patient’s tumor, and then decide what antibody or antibodies to co-administer along with the SNAP CAR T cells.
Applications for the next cohort of the Chancellor’s Gap Fund will be accepted beginning in September. If you have questions about the fund or your project’s eligibility for consideration, contact the Innovation Institute at email@example.com with the subject line “Chancellor’s Gap Fund.”