The standard treatment for alopecia areata, an autoimmune skin disease that causes hair loss, is limited and unpleasant. Patients receive a needle injection of steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs directly into the scalp on a monthly basis until hair growth occurs—an approach that has remained in practice since the 1970s.
So when Arash Mostaghimi, MD, MPH, an attending physician in the Department of Dermatology who specializes in treating the disease, was approached by the Brigham Research Institute (BRI) last December about a program that would pair BWH clinicians with local entrepreneurs in the biomedical field, he saw an opportunity. Novopyxis, a startup company in Cambridge, Mass., was developing a device that could deliver medication through the skin without injections. The company, however, needed some guidance to identify possible applications for the tool.
Mostaghimi immediately recognized the potential for a new, non-invasive treatment for alopecia areata. For the past few months, Mostaghimi has volunteered his time to consult with the engineers at Novopyxis to refine the prototype’s design so that it would better meet the needs of dermatologists. Kathie Huang, MD, co-director of the Hair Loss Clinic, and Alexander Lin, PhD, director of the Center for Clinical Spectroscopy, also provided guidance.
Now, Mostaghimi and Novopyxis’ co-founders are waiting to hear back from the National Institutes of Health about a grant they filed jointly to initiate clinical trials with the device for patients with alopecia areata.
“It’s an exciting collaboration because the end result could not have been achieved by either side individually,” Mostaghimi said. “It really shows the power of connecting across disciplines.”
This collaboration came about as a result of the BRI’s efforts to foster more connections across the life sciences community with BWH investigators. In December 2015, the BRI partnered with MassCONNECT, a mentorship program run by nonprofit industry group the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio). MassCONNECT matches entrepreneurs and founders with life sciences professionals to catalyze and commercialize innovation. The BRI connects MassCONNECT participants with BWH content experts—clinicians and researchers—who serve as mentors and advisors to the MassCONNECT-sponsored projects. BWH faculty members receive no compensation for their work with MassCONNECT entrepreneurs.
While these entrepreneurs receive technological and business guidance through the MassCONNECT program, they often need clinical insights to successfully translate their products and services, explained Anu Swaminathan, PhD, director of scientific programs and partnerships at the BRI. The BRI aims to accomplish this by connecting rising biomedical entrepreneurs in Massachusetts with experts at BWH who can help them identify and fill any relevant gaps and accelerate their progress into the market.
“Clinical expertise is the component that’s missing, and there’s a lot to be derived from relationships with our clinicians here, and vice versa,” Swaminathan said. “It truly reflects the value we can offer to the products and services that will define the future of clinical care.”
Collaboration in Action
Volunteer clinicians are only required to commit one hour of consultation, but some relationships extended beyond that and turned into an ongoing collaboration. Mostaghimi, who was one of six BWH mentors involved in the first cycle of partnerships—the BRI participated in a second cycle starting in February—originally met with Novopyxis to discuss its device Droplette.
Medication comes out of the device in a very fine mist, with individual droplets delivered at such a small size and high velocity that they can painlessly penetrate the outermost layer of the epidermis. These droplets stream into existing channels in the skin, such as sweat glands and hair follicles, over a midsized surface area. As a treatment method for alopecia areata, it would be a significant departure from the discomfort of injecting needles into multiple areas of the scalp.
“This would allow us to overcome what is a large part of the anxiety and difficulty for patients with alopecia areata,” Mostaghimi said.
Over the course of several months of in-person meetings, conference calls and email chains, Mostaghimi has worked with Novopyxis to adapt Droplette to improve the likelihood that dermatologists could—and would—use it to treat ailments like alopecia areata.
“At the end of the day, we want to make sure our technology is something clinicians would want to use,” said Madhavi Gavini, one of Novopyxis’ co-founders. “On the engineering side, we can absolutely build a device, but that doesn’t mean it’ll integrate easily with their workflow.”
Some of those changes were as minor as adding a light, timer and beeping sound to the device. Mostaghimi also recommended that the company modify the design so that Droplette would have a similar look and feel to laser devices, which dermatologists are already comfortable with.
“These are things that are very easy to build into the design, but ones that we would not have considered without input from our clinical advisors,” said Rathi Srinivas, another Novopyxis co-founder.
Other BWH clinicians matched to entrepreneurs through MassCONNECT last year in the first cycle include Ryan Schmidt, MD, Department of Pathology; Jeffrey Greenberg, MD, Department of Medicine; and Kathryn Rose, MD, Department of Medicine, who consulted with Lumio Health, which is developing a clinical-grade fertility diagnostic tool for at-home testing. Also in the first cycle were Richard Swanson, MD, Department of Surgery, and Kunal Jajoo, MD, Department of Medicine, who consulted with PanTher Therapeutics, which is working on a pancreatic cancer treatment.
While the BRI analyzes the outcome of the first round, the second cycle is already underway. Success isn’t only being measured in terms of grants, Swaminathan said. Having a hand in innovation and a voice in the next wave of patient care is also very valuable, she said.
“In a place like Boston, where so many companies are trying to improve patient care, BWH can be a powerful ally, given that it is a powerhouse of research exists in one of the best hospitals in the world,” Swaminathan said. “BWH investigators have a lot to offer entrepreneurs, and through ongoing and new partnerships, we hope to share our knowledge and help shape the future of innovative clinical care.”