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UM Ventures Backs Innovative UMB Startup Programs and Technologies to Aid Clinicians in the Fight Against COVID-19 Pandemic

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Following the initial outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the US, most of the public’s attention was focused on finding hand sanitizer, toilet paper and face masks. While these resources are imperative to help prevent the spread of the virus, there is a dire need for more healthcare technology that will directly impact the treatment of patients who contract the virus and become seriously ill. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), physicians, faculty/researchers and tech transfer professionals have been working diligently to bring innovations to life to help clinicians on the front line treat patients and fight this outbreak.

UM Ventures is currently seeking investors to support the development of the following companies, researchers and their technologies to aid in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gen1E Lifesciences has spent the last two years developing a therapeutic drug treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). When Dr. Ritu Lal, the company’s CEO, established Gen1E, she could not have imagined the threat the world would be facing today due to COVID-19. The company’s treatment for ARDS is needed now more than ever. Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) develops from a severe immune-related response that causes the patient’s lungs to fill with fluid to the point where they cannot breathe. This disease alone has a 40% mortality rate and is now the leading cause of death as a result of COVID-19 (Lancet, Mar 2020). According to recent studies, 67% of critical COVID-19 patients are afflicted with ARDS (Lancet, Feb 2020).   

GEn1E acquired an exclusive, worldwide and all-fields license to UMB’s specific and function selective p38a kinase inhibitor program in late 2019. The company has already developed a lead molecule and is racing to clinical study.

“We are doing everything we can to accelerate our lead compound into clinical testing in ARDS, and will next proceed with seeking approvals to utilize our platform for other inflammatory and age-related diseases. The entire team from UMB has been helping us super-accelerate to accomplish this,” said Dr. Lal.

The company recently graduated from Y Combinator and Stanford accelerator StartX. Under the leadership of Dr. Lal, the company is advancing its drug to the clinic with a study site chosen and clinical material for human studies now being manufactured.GEn1E, which has already raised $3MM is looking for an immediate investment partner to speed up the fight against a pandemic that is devastating public health and economies around the world. 

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The research team headed by Charles (Chaz) Hong, MD, PhD, and Melvin Sharoky, Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and the Director of Cardiology Research at University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), has invented and is testing a preclinical small molecule drug treatment for respiratory ailments like asthma, acute lung injuries and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). ARDS, an acute severe respiratory failure triggered by an inciting event, has estimated annual incidence of over 190,000 cases, responsible for 74,500 deaths in the US. ARDS is the most feared and deadly complication of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While current ARDS management is limited to supportive care, Dr. Hong’s technology represents a potentially revolutionary approach to prevent and halt ARDS.

UM Ventures is funding the preclinical testing of one of Dr. Hong’s small molecule G-coupled protein receptor inhibitors for efficacy in respiratory-related diseases like severe asthma and ARDS. UMB is actively working to fast-track projects like this, which are related to COVID-19, with a potential for UMB to match investments between $50k to 100k.

Dr. Hong adds, “Our first-in-class molecule represents a potential revolutionary approach to prevent and halt ARDS by targeting the underlying molecular derangements that trigger and continue its vicious cycle. We are particularly hopeful that this approach will prove efficacious for this deadly complication of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Joe Scalea, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Surgery at UMSOM and an Immunology and Transplant Surgeon at UMMC. When Dr. Scalea recognizes an unmet need in healthcare, he works swiftly  to find a solution. His recent conceptualization and execution of the first-ever drone delivery of a transplant organ has been widely recognized. These technologies are highly disruptive within the transplant and medical engineering industries. His next venture aims to protect patients and clinicians that are working in quarantined conditions due to COVID-19. Ill patients under isolation require regular medical procedures, like blood draws, which pose a risk of pathogen exposure for both the clinician and the patient.

Dr. Scalea’s newest innovation seeks to mitigate that risk by creating an automated blood draw solution that pairs point-of-care technology with wireless bedside monitoring. This device would enable necessary blood draws for hospitalized patients in isolation to be done on an automated basis, decreasing the need for healthcare workers to enter the room. This solution potentially reduces the probability of exposure of pathogens for both the patient and clinicians.

UM Ventures is providing initial seed funding to support the development of a device prototype in conjunction with Baltimore’s Harbor Designs. Dr.  Scalea comments that “these technologies have been needed for many years, but with COVID-19, their need has become emergent. We are fortunate to partner with expert local design professionals at Harbor Designs to bring this across the finish line.” 

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Lung failure from the COVID-19 virus is causing catastrophic loss of life. Patients commonly succumb to this disease when they exceed the support that can be provided by mechanical ventilators. There is a pressing need to develop techniques to supplement gas exchange to provide patients with the extra margin of support they need to allow their lungs to recover.

In response to this need, a Manhattan Project-type collaboration has been formed between UMSOM and University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP). Joseph Friedberg, MD, The Charles Reid Edwards Professor of Surgery at UMSOM and Thoracic Surgeon-in-Chief at the University of Maryland Medical System has teamed up with Hosam Fathy, PhD, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UMCP, to coordinate a joint team effort across the two campuses. Participants in this effort including Dr. Jin-Oh Hahn, Dr. Hank Haslach, Dr. Chandra Thamire, Majid Aroom, and Kevin Aroom from the College Park campus, with strong support from Dr. Don Devoe and Dr. Bakakumar Balchandran. The novel approach they are pursuing is to develop a device that perfuses oxygenated perfluorocarbon, an inert liquid with extraordinary gas-dissolving properties, through the abdominal cavity – essentially turning the abdomen into “a third lung.”

Dr. Friedberg states, “We are hustling to make this device available for COVID-19 patients, for whom no other options exist. Long term, however, we believe this device could find a standard role in the treatment of any patient with recoverable lung injury from any cause. The issue is that patients with severely compromised lung function require mechanical ventilatory support, but this can actually compound the problem by a complication known as ventilator-induced lung injury. We believe this technology could find wide application by being instituted early in the patient’s course of treatment, prophylactically, to avoid ventilator-induced lung injury by 'resting' the lungs to give them the best chance possible of healing.”

UM Ventures is currently seeking additional funding and support for the development of this important technology.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has also created a need for more remote-care alternatives. Gil Blankenship and Maryland Development Center (MDC) engineers including Dr. Stephen Restaino along with UMMC surgeons and critical care team members, including Dr. Jeffrey S. Wolf and Dr. Aldo Iacono, are working to develop a small, inexpensive portable ventilator for patients whose lungs are severely damaged from COVID pneumonia. The novel ventilator will be used in conjunction with UMB’s proprietary automatic emergency airway detection system to deliver low flow oxygen while avoiding the potentially damaging high pressures associated with ventilator based oxygenation. 

"I believe this is a great ventilator system as it avoids a tube placed in the patient’s mouth making the new tracheal tube system more comfortable for the patient, avoiding the need for large amounts of sedation, and allowing for speaking and communications to healthcare staff ­— and potentially eating and drinking. There should be a cost benefit and ability to save lives by using the system in rural US locations where subspecialty care is not always offered and in countries that do not have the means to purchase high-cost ventilator systems," said Dr. Iacono. 

“The concerns for ventilator shortages have really driven innovation. Alternative ventilatory devices that can be easily produced and delivered will hopefully prevent death from ventilator rationing like those seen in Italy," said Dr. Wolf. 

“MDC was created to advance inventions such as the emergency airway device into the marketplace. We are fortunate to be able to partner with the University of Maryland, Dr. Wolf and Dr. Iacono, to develop this novel ventilation system in this critical period," said Mr. Blankenship, Managing Director of MDC.   

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UM Ventures was established to support the next generation of innovation and discoveries. With proper funding, these technologies will be translated into medical applications that can reach the patients and clinicians who need them now. For more information about these programs and how you can support their advancement, please contact Phil Robilotto, Associate Vice President, Office of Technology Transfer, at 410-706-2378 or probilotto@umaryland.edu.