A new life sciences company founded by two faculty members at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will commercialize biopolymer microthread technology developed in the laboratory to produce new treatments for common sports injuries and heart attacks and new ways to deliver stem cells to regenerate damaged tissues in people and animals. Called VitaThreads LLC, the company will build on the pioneering research of founders George Pins and Glenn Gaudette, who are both associate professors of biomedical engineering.
Made of collagen, fibrin, and other biologic materials, biopolymer microthreads, which are about the width of a human hair, can be braided into cable-like structures that mimic natural connective tissues. First developed in Pins's lab as a potential tool for repairing torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL) in the knee, the microthreads were adapted by Pins and Gaudette for use as biological sutures to deliver bone marrow––derived stem cells to regenerate cardiac muscle damaged during a heart attack. Other WPI labs are using the threads, seeded with varying cell types, as scaffolds for wound-healing and skeletal muscle regeneration, among other purposes.
The new company will license the biopolymer microthread technology from WPI and have access to a new computer-controlled extruder designed and built in Gaudette's lab to ramp up microthread production to meet anticipated demand. (Learn more about the manufacturing process.)
Threads of Hope
WPI team develops biopolymer microthreads for tissue regeneration, wound healing, and cell therapy applications.
"A fundamental part of our mission at WPI is to translate research into products that make a difference in the world," said David Easson, director of WPI's Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park and director, ad interim, of the university's Bioengineering Institute. "We are pleased to support this team's efforts and look forward to VitaThreads creating jobs in Central Massachusetts and bringing to the clinic innovative products that can improve people's lives."
Pins and Gaudette will serve as scientific advisors to the VitaThreads management team, which includes co-founders Adam Collette, vice president of product development, and CEO Harry Wotton '94. The company will operate initially within WPI's Bioengineering Institute at Gateway Park.
"Cell therapies and tissue regeneration are coming to the clinic, and we believe the VitaThreads platform will be an important delivery system for these new therapies," Wotton said. "This is a brilliant scientific team and I am excited about helping them bring their technology to the market."
VitaThreads will develop microthread technology for a range of human clinical needs. The company's first commercial product, however, will use microthreads to deliver stem cells for the animal medicine market. "Stem cell therapies are still in the research and development phase for humans, but they are a reality today in animal medicine," Wotton said. "Every year thousands of horses and dogs have stem cell injections that heal torn ligaments and other connective tissues; this technology will be able to deliver those stem cells much more efficiently."
VitaThreads is the second start-up venture based on WPI technology for Wotten, who earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and master's degree in biomedical engineering at the university. Through his WPI project work he invented an external fixation device that significantly improved the treatment of dogs with broken legs. He launched Securos in 1997 to build and market that device.
Securos thrived and Wotton went on to design hundreds of other innovative products, from small screws to large implantable devices, for the animal medicine market. Securos grew to have 25 employees and locations in Massachusetts and Germany before Wotton sold the company to MWI Veterinary Supply, one of the county's largest animal health products distributors, in 2007. Wotton stayed on with Securos for nearly five years, helping the company to grow to more than $20 million in annual sales.
"It was a great experience, and but I was ready for new challenges," he said. "It was time for me to get out of the big corporate environment and get back to a start-up, which is what I really love. And the opportunity to work with the team at VitaThreads was a perfect fit."
Collette holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from Tufts University. Prior to launching VitaThreads, he worked at Allergan Medical and Serica Technologies Inc. as a team leader on research and development projects, as well as in clinical trial design and management.
In May, the VitaThreads team took first prize at the Massachusetts Life Sciences Innovation Day 2012, sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC). The event attracted more than 350 people from life sciences companies and venture capital firms who reviewed presentations of 26 new technologies developed at Massachusetts universities. The VitaThreads technology will also be featured as part of WPI's presence at BIO2012 in Boston on June 20.