October 15, 2018 (Vol. 38, No. 18)
nanoComposix Works at Nanoscale to Improve New Drug Development and Diagnostics
The jewel-like richness of Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle and other masterpieces of stained glass owe their vibrancy to gold and silver nanoparticles within the glass. Gold nanoparticles range from bright green to bright red, and in solution, they can impart a color like that of ruby-red wine. The qualities that enable nanoparticles to absorb or scatter light, and thus seemingly change color, enable applications in biotech that are just as dramatic as the stained glass.
“Nanomaterials are enablers,” Steven Oldenburg, Ph.D., CEO of nanoComposix, explains. “It’s not their size that sets them apart but how their properties change at the nanoscale that makes them useful.”
Diagnostics take advantage of that, for example, home pregnancy tests. “The red line is composed of 40 nm gold particles that flow up and are captured in a diagnostic assay on a piece of paper. These lateral flow rapid test assays have a lot of advantages, but lack the sensitivity needed for some clinical applications,” he tells GEN.
When thinking about a way around that sensitivity limitation, Dr. Oldenburg returns to a discovery he made as a doctoral student 20 years ago.
“We made nanoshells, that is, a silica core coated with a thin shell of gold,” he recalls. “Because of the unusual properties of the materials, the particles have a blue-gray color on the test strip and are equivalent to 30 solid gold particles. Consequently, they are brighter and easier to see, so the assays are more sensitive.”
Because gold nanoparticles efficiently convert light into heat, nanoComposix also develops them for photothermal therapies. “They can be functionalized, sent to a location in the body, and excited with a laser to either release a drug or generate heat as the therapy (for instance, as treatment for cancer or acne).”
nanoComposix has applied its technology to projects at more than 25 organizations, including the U.S. government. For example, it is working with NaNotics to develop nanoparticles to scavenge the circulatory system to remove the signaling molecules that regulate tumor growth. nanoComposix is also collaborating with the University of Minnesota to investigate a nanoparticle technology to cryopreserve zebrafish embryos and is commercializing a Lyme disease detection assay in ticks.
In addition, the company produced a nanosilver reference material for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
nanoComposix University Launched
Dr. Oldenburg founded nanoComposix out of his frustration as a research scientist. He realized that he often ordered and characterized nanomaterials only to learn that their shape, size distribution, aggregation, or other properties weren’t what he expected. “The situation has improved, but it’s still a problem in the industry,” he says. “If those properties aren’t well controlled [then] when they are integrated—especially with biology—your data may be useless.”
That situation caused nanoComposix to develop well-characterized nanomaterials and to share that information with clients.
“Five or six years ago, we realized that selling nanomaterials wasn’t the end goal of our business. Instead, our goal was to help people commercialize their products by employing the novel properties of nanomaterials,” he continues.
To do that effectively, nanoComposix needed to understand their problems. Providing well-characterized materials and non-proprietary coatings wasn’t enough.
“You can be valuable because you have the secret sauce, or because you’re a teacher who enables people to do things they couldn’t do before,” he says. Choosing to be the teacher, Dr. Oldenburg and his team decided to share a significant portion of their proprietary information, including particles’ properties, how to best integrate them into various projects, and how they perform in the body. “Then people can invent and experiment. When they succeed, it’s natural for them to come to us for scaleup.”
Teaching one client at a time is good, but “when you digitize that content, your ability to help multiplies 100-fold,” he says. That philosophy led the company to launch nanoComposix University. It has 20 to 30 learning modules now, and 100 more scheduled to launch in 2019.
“We’re moving toward an incubator accelerator model,” Dr. Oldenburg says. “We’ve worked on so many nano-enabled projects, we can tell early on if an idea is feasible from both a scientific and cost-effectiveness perspective.”
For particularly promising projects, he notes, “We may partner, do an equity investment, provide financing, help finish the R&D, provide connections to the right people—anything necessary to help commercialize their projects. Our goal is to be their commercial manufacturer for nanoparticles.”
Sienna Biopharmaceuticals, which went public last summer, was the first company through this accelerator. “An MIT researcher focusing on cancer therapies approached us,” Dr. Oldenburg recalls. “We liked the idea, took early equity in the company, and worked on developing intellectual property together. We developed the patents and worked on the scaleup. That was very exciting for us and was the impetus for this accelerator model. We’d like to do this again.”
Eyes on Innovation
Dr. Oldenburg says he has maintained an innovative mindset since his days at university. “I chose Rice University for my Ph.D. in applied physics because it was one of the first graduate programs in nanotechnology in the country.” Eventually, he began working in industry. In 2004, he founded nanoComposix. He later co-founded four other nanotech companies.
“We’re an employee-owned company and have been profitable every year, so our challenge has always been how to continue to innovate and invest in R&D while keeping the lights on. Hundreds of nanotechnology companies went broke in the early 2000s, so we had to keep our ears to the ground to find the right balance between revenue and research.”
Initially, that meant selling into relatively small research markets to generate the revenue to enable the company to make a greater impact.
“Doing something new takes a lot of time,” he points out. “To persuade a potential client to leave a system that’s working and adopt your product requires improvements of not just 20 or 30%, but of orders of magnitude.
“Nanoparticles are still an early-stage technology, and we’re working with many early-stage companies, so commercialization—and orders for commercial quantities of nanoparticles—takes longer and costs more than people hope.”
“There aren’t a lot of nanoscale success stories,” he admits. “It’s very much an ‘innovate or die’ environment in which you can’t simply look to what others have done. We’re in a world where innovation is a necessity.”