Several years after Harvard University spun out nanotech shop Nanosys to develop biomedical applications for nanowire technology invented at the school, Harvard and Nanosys have licensed elements of the intellectual property to a different startup to give it another try.
Last week, Harvard and Nanosys disclosed that they recently granted an exclusive, worldwide license to several patents and patent applications related to the use of nanowires as biosensors to Vista Therapeutics.
Vista, which was founded in late 2007 through Harvard's Office of Technology Licensing, will attempt to commercialize the technology as a device for measuring blood and urinary biomarkers of organ and tissue injury in real time.
Under the terms of the agreement, Vista also has secured the right to commercialize any forms of treatment or methods for monitoring therapeutics-associated adverse responses related to the detection technology.
In exchange, Harvard and Nanosys have each bought undisclosed equity stakes in Vista, and are entitled to undisclosed up-front license payments and potential downstream royalties on product sales.
The core IP surrounds a wide range of applications for nanowires, all of which were derived from the work of Charles Lieber, a professor of chemistry at Harvard. These include the use of the nanowires as biosensors in various nanotechnologies, nanomaterials, and field effect transistors, or FETs.
Lieber and Harvard founded Nanosys in 2001 to commercialize the nanowires as biosensors in either medical or biomedical research applications. For various reasons, Nanosys scuttled the idea of pursuing biological applications for the technology in favor of other applications, Andrew Filler, vice president of IP for Nanosys, told BTW this week.
"Several years ago we licensed fundamental nanowire technology from Harvard, and we're using some of that at Nanosys in areas" such as display technology and fuel cells, Filler said. "Another application is nanowire-based biosensors. That's an area we had focused on but we're now focused on nearer-term commercial opportunities."
Bob Benson, director of business development at the Harvard OTD, told BTW that Nanosys had a "difficult time getting the biosensor applications to work. Part of it is they thought the technology had not been moved far enough along."
So while Nanosys continued to develop the nanowires primarily for use in electronics and engineering applications, Lieber continued to investigate use of the wires as biosensors in hopes of vetting the technology to a point where it might attract another commercial partner.
"I'm still very bullish on this," Lieber told BTW. "For a number of years it's been frustrating to me to not see this technology move to the stage where someone can show that it can work outside of our lab. It's been going on at the university research level, but it needs to be shown that it can be used in a real commercial venture."
Lieber said that his lab has published and patented various biosensor-related applications for the technology, in particular as FETs.
"It's a platform sensor or detection technology that has extreme sensitivity and is label-free," Lieber said. "There are some similarities to surface plasmon techniques, but here we have a receptor on the end of this nanowire. The advantage is that sample volumes can be exceedingly small, and it's a simple readout. You just have to hook up a voltmeter to measure changes in resistance."
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In particular, Lieber's lab conducted work with colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital that showed the potential of the nanowires in monitoring toxic response.
"A large percentage of deaths during … surgery are due to renal failure, and by the time you go to a lab, do an [assay], get results, the kidneys might be shutting down," Lieber said. "But if [they] could do it continuously," physicians might be able to detect and address such organ or tissue damage much earlier.
Enter Spencer Farr, a former toxicologist from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who founded companies such as Xenometrix and Phase-1 Molecular Toxicology.
Farr "approached us because he was looking for a technology that could measure biomarkers continuously and in real time," Harvard's Benson said. "He was thinking about it for drug discovery and development, and he saw the nanowires as having potential in medical emergencies, surgeries, [and] intensive care units, to measure, on a continuous basis, biomarkers in a person's blood."
Hence Farr, Lieber, and the Harvard OTD formed Vista as a second chance to develop the nanowires for biomedical applications.
However, in 2001 Harvard had granted Nanosys a relatively broad license to the nanowire technology, so in order to move forward with Vista, Harvard and Nanosys had to work together to negotiate the appropriate licenses.
"Harvard licensed these inventions to Nanosys, and they have an all-field license," Benson said. "They needed to sub-license this, and they may have licensed some of their own IP to Vista, too."
Nanosys' Filler confirmed that his company has "the fundamental core underlying technology; and Harvard has made some improvements specific to the biosensor area. By coming together with Harvard. we were able to give Vista what it needed to enter this market."
For its part, Nanosys has not completely scrapped the pursuit of all life-sciences applications for the nanowires. For instance, it has recently signed licensing agreements with QuantumDx, which will use the wires in DNA-based sensor arrays; and with EvolveMachine, which is working in the area of artificial olfactory sensors based on the technology.
"We're trying to slice a pie as many ways as we can," Filler said.
And Nanosys will keep a close eye on developments from Lieber's lab, which is experimenting with using the wires in a number of unrelated biological applications, including single nucleotide polymorphism analysis, drug-screening assays, and detecting cancer biomarkers.
In fact, Filler said that Nanosys has "another deal in place with Harvard that we hope to announce soon where we will try and partner with a VC or equity firm to find another commercialization partner outside of Vista's field. We don't know what that field of use would be yet. But there are a million different areas that someone interested in nanobiomedical technology could use these nanowires for."
Lieber said that although he doesn't have formal research collaborations with either Nanosys or Vista, he is crossing his fingers that some of the biomedical applications for the nanowire technology finally come to fruition.
"I just want to give this technology an honest shot, and it's too far removed from our research to work on it in my lab," Lieber said. "Once a company demonstrates it can manufacture and use this technology, there are going to be a lot of applications."
Of course Lieber, who also has an undisclosed equity stake in Vista, has a financial incentive in the success of the technology. "It would be nice to make money," he said. "But for me, it's mostly that I think this technology should be commercialized. To heck with the financial rewards."