Tag Archives: Biotech

Male Contraception With an Ultrasound Device?

A fascinating new device could one provide the elusive male contraceptive:

German design graduate Rebecca Weiss has won a James Dyson Award for a male contraceptive device called Coso, which uses ultrasound waves to temporarily halt sperm regeneration.

Weiss’s Coso device is designed to be a reversible contraceptive solution. To use it, a person would fill the device with water up to the indicated mark, turn it on so it heats to operating temperature, and sit for a few minutes with their testicles dipped into it.

Coso looks like it could be the newest Alexa. It even comes with an app to show where you are in the process.

Right now, this device is just a prototype and is not available to the public. Its technology is based on a published study in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology.

This study successfully used ultrasound currents on rat testes in order to reduce sperm count. It will take a lot more research to determine this is safe and effective in humans.

If it works, I think this innovation could be transformative. Most, if not all, of the burden of contraception is generally on women. Those methods often have significant side effects.

Perhaps there is a better way!

I think a startup like this would make a wonderful candidate for Y Combinator, which backs startups from all over the world in areas including biotech and medical devices.

Best of luck to the amazing Rebecca Weiss!

More on tech:

What if Everyone on Earth Had Super Fast Internet for $1?

Robot Hands, Vertical Farms, and the Future of Food

Why I Just Invested in Capbase, The Startup in a Box

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Amazing Drugs Are Going from the University to the Graveyard, While Patients Pay the Price

Was the cure for cancer invented in a university, only to be shelved for a lack of funding?

University labs are creating incredible drugs on a regular basis. Unfortunately, most will never get to the patients that need them so desperately. This is the conclusion of an intriguing book I just read, Preserving the Promise: Improving the Culture of Biotech Investment, by Scott Desain and Scott Fishman.

The problem is that universities don’t have the massive funds it takes to bring a drug candidate through clinical trials to FDA approval. What about Big Pharma? Well, they’ve been cutting their R&D budgets drastically for years.

This leaves early stage biotech investors to fund much of the commercialization of new drugs, and there simply aren’t enough of them to fund all the good candidates. Indeed, the number of investors specializing in this area is shrinking. This doesn’t surprise me given that most early-stage investors focus on software startups and have a software background themselves.

This does leave the few angel investors who specialize in biotech in an enviable position though: more great companies out there than there are angels to fund them means big slices of great companies for less money, and thus higher returns. This is an area that I may be branching out into in the future. Being even a tiny part of creating a new lifesaving drug or medical device would be incredible.

University policies also hinder the effective commercialization of research, the book notes. Technology Transfer Offices own the patent, but sometimes are hesitant to license it unless they can get lots of revenue for it right away, which is hard for a fledgling company to provide. In other cases, they bury the patent, thinking it unpromising. And university conflict of interest policies can often stop the inventor from continuing to work on the research with company funds. This separates the technology from the person who is best positioned to advance it.

In all, this seems like a neglected area with a lot of problems. That we rely on it for virtually all new drugs is scary. But investors like myself should eye the area with interest, especially given rich valuations in software startups.

For more posts on biotech, check these out:

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Photo: The co-founders of BioNTech, a biotech success story. “Forschungszentrum der Biotech-Unternehmen BioNTech AG und Ganymed Pharmaceuticals AG” by MWKEL-RLP is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Miracle Particles Behind COVID Vaccines

The particles that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines rely on are 1/1000th the width of a human hair. They’re called lipid nanoparticles, and they’re revolutionizing medicine as we speak.

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines work by sending mRNA to your cells. The mRNA tells the cells how to make proteins that block the virus. But you can’t send the mRNA on its own, because it would be repelled and flushed out through the kidneys.

The mRNA needs a wrapper, and that’s where the lipid nanoparticle comes in. The mRNA molecules are negatively charged and so are our cells. These two negatives push each other away. But, the nanoparticle can make it inside the cell.

Once inside the cell, the particle faces another barrier. The cell wraps it in a container called an endosome, because the cell doesn’t want to be contaminated. So, the lipid nanoparticle has to be specially designed to escape that endosomal prison.

Decades of research has gone into these particles, and they can now escape and spread the necessary information into the watery substance inside the cell (called the cytoplasm). Our commitment to funding basic science decades ago is paying off today in ways we could never have anticipated.

I learned a great deal about these incredible particles today at an online seminar hosted by the journal Nature with Kathryn Whitehead of Carnegie Mellon University and Yizhou Dong of Ohio State University. They gave some great perspective on the development of this amazing technology.

One thing Professor Whitehead mentioned was that despite concerns that the mRNA vaccines are too new and unproven to be safe, the lipid nanoparticles they use have existed for decades. In fact, she said she’s had research rejected for publication because these particles are considered too old hat!

I also finally learned why the vaccines have to be stored at such cold temperatures: molecules will start moving around too much once the temperature rises, so the lipid nanoparticles could come apart. Perhaps one reason Moderna’s vaccine doesn’t need quite as cold of storage is that they’ve been researching these particles for much longer than Pfizer/BioNTech, so their particles may be a bit more stable.

Beyond COVID, lipid nanoparticles and the mRNA therapies they’re a part of could be used for other viruses like the flu, Zika and Ebola. They may also be used as cancer immunotherapies. (This echoes what the co-founders of BioNTech said recently.)

These particles seem likely to underlie an entire new generation of medicines. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them, microscopic as they are!

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Photo: “2020_06_020100 – a human cell attacked by Covid-19” by Gwydion M. Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What I Learned From a Conference Call With the Co-Founders of BioNTech

Today, I had the opportunity to join a call organized by STAT News with the co-founders of BioNTech, the company behind the highly successful COVID vaccine. Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci are incredibly impressive people. Here were some of the highlights:

  • BioNTech was working on cancer vaccines as COVID appeared, but after Ugur read early reports of COVID cases in China, they realized their technology was well suited to making a COVID vaccine
  • Wuhan is one of the most heavily connected cities in China, perhaps explaining how the pandemic spread so quickly
  • We can’t expect the vaccine rollout to go smoothly right at the beginning, but they are confident we’ll improve as we gain experience
  • We are likely to get some data on asymptomatic infections amongst the vaccinated in February. (This may have implications for how long we have to wear masks, etc.)
  • If we delay the 2nd dose of a COVID vaccine in order to get more people their first dose, we should avoid delaying by too much. Whether we delay is a risk/benefit calculation best left to governments.
  • The new technology they’re most excited about is using immune mechanisms against cancer. They have a drug that’s within weeks of beginning testing.

These STAT Events are free and open to anyone. It was a fascinating call and I was honored to be able to ask a question to these incredible scientists (the answer is the last bullet point above). The recording of the meeting should go up on STAT’s website soon.

How We Could’ve Known Theranos Was a Fraud

Investors lost over $9 billion on Theranos, the diagnostics testing company run by Elizabeth Holmes that was exposed as a fraud. Worse yet, patients received inaccurate test results, imperilling their health. But what if asking one simple question could’ve prevented all this?

In the book Editing Humanity, Keith Davies notes that Theranos’ technology had no foundation in peer-reviewed, published research. The always-astute John Ioannidis pointed this out as early as 2015. Theranos published a single paper in 2018, after the company was already exposed as fradulent and was near bankruptcy. Theranos made incredible claims for its technology, but without peer review by respected journal, there was no one to check if those claims were actually true. (Theranos had filed patent applications, but that doesn’t necessarily provide the same level of detail and review.)

This stands in contrast to many other biotech companies, such as several in the CRISPR area (Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, etc.) whose approach grows out of research published in major journals. Also, such companies have major scientists as co-founders, not a 19 year old unknown.

I am considering getting involved in early-stage biotech investment, so asking “What papers can you point me to that underlie your technology?” is a question I plan to ask in the future. That may be able to weed out some weaker companies and potential frauds.

For more background on Theranos, I strongly recommend the outstanding book Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. I listened to it as an Audible audiobook. It was read by Will Damron, whose voice is outstanding.

I also hear excellent things about the ABC News podcast series The Dropout, which details Holmes’ path from Stanford student to billionaire to accused criminal awaiting trial today. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I look forward to getting a chance soon!

“File:Elizabeth Holmes 2014 cropped.jpg” by Photo by Max Morse for TechCrunch TechCrunch is licensed under CC BY 2.0