Researchers at Harvard are developing technologies that could change the way prescription drugs are delivered, potentially fighting cancer and prolonging lives. At a March 5 Guppy Tank event, hosted by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD) and the shared laboratory space LabCentral in Cambridge, two of these innovations got their first airing before an expert panel of investors and entrepreneurs.
Imagine that tiny amounts of fluid could be dispensed with greater accuracy than ever before, fine-tuning the potency of drug doses and making them easier for the body to absorb. Or that microscopic drug doses could be “backpacked” onto immune cells, better equipping them to target disease. The 13th session of Guppy Tank unveiled both concepts to the panel, which responded with feedback and ideas about how best to partner with industry to drive these innovations toward public benefit. The event drew a packed room for pitches, discussion, and networking.
True to its name, the Guppy Tank is about nurturing young projects and providing innovative researchers with strategic guidance from a rotating panel of industry experts. “There aren’t too many venues in the gestation of a company where you can get a supportive environment with this kind of expertise,” said Christopher Petty, a director of business development at the OTD. “At this point, [these scientists have] been doing years of work on the research itself but are just starting to think about the formation of a company, so it’s great for them to get the feedback. Later, in the world of serious fundraising, there’s more chance you are in a ‘shark tank.’ That can be less constructive, since it can be more about raising money and why an idea might not work.”
Daniele Foresti, a research associate in materials science at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, gave the first presentation, on “Drop-on-Demand Biologics.” He introduced a technology developed in the lab of Jennifer A. Lewis that applies the science of 3-D printing to the dispensing of pharmaceutical fluids. Lewis is Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Jianming Yu Professor of Arts and Sciences, and a core faculty memberat the Wyss Institute.
Through the Lewis Lab’s innovations in acoustophoretic printing, researchers can use soundwaves to regulate the amount of fluid being dispensed from a nozzle, much like the flow seen in inkjet printing or water falling from a tap. In Foresti’s vision, the tiny droplets would contain precise doses of protein-based drugs. This is an important bit of fine-tuning, because the molecules of biotherapeutic drugs are very fragile and must typically be formulated only in low concentration.
Using the soundwave technology developed by Foresti and the Lewis Lab, the therapeutic molecules can be encapsulated in protective microbeads and formulated as high-concentration liquids, making it possible for drugs that are now delivered intravenously to be injected. This could increase comfort for patients and lower the cost of treatment. “It’s a cutting-edge technology that’s well-suited to the industry,” Foresti told the panel of life-science venture capitalists.