Solving real-world problems with unconventional solutions: Using bacteria to heal wounds

April 21, 2015

One in 12 Americans are diabetic, a number expected to rise to one in three by 2050.

It’s no surprise then that chronic wounds – a common problem in patients with underlying diseases like diabetes – and related dressing expenditures are also climbing. With costs for related treatments and medical supplies totaling $2.8 billion annually in the United States, a glaring need exists for cost-effective dressing that decreases healing times and reduces pain. Research out of Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) might have the answer, in the form of a new, recombinant designer collagen.

Dr. Brooke Russell

Brooke Russell, PhD, ECM Technologies co-founder and faculty member at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology, is looking to bring a new, bacterial-derived designer collagen to market.

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and serves as the major structural building block of most tissues, directing many complex processes, like wound healing. Because of its useful properties, collagen has long been used for wound dressings, bone grafts and other vascular applications. Specific cues within collagen offer the blueprint that cells follow to heal wounds, or even make new bone. However, only animal-derived collagen is currently available, leaving no opportunity to enhance collagen’s natural cues, until now.

Founded on an initial discovery from researchers at the TAMHSC Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT), ECM Technologies – a Houston-based biotech startup – is looking to bring a new, bacterial-derived designer collagen to market. Unlike mammal-derived collagens, the designer counterpart can be engineered to contain cues for specific, unmet biomedical needs.

ECM Technologies co-founders Magnus Hook, PhD, and Brooke Russell, PhD, both faculty members at the TAMHSC IBT, are looking to translate this novel discovery into a product for patients in need.

“A designer collagen could ultimately instruct cells to close a wound quicker than ever before because now we are able to genetically manipulate pre-set collagen cues,” Russell said.

Ultimately, the designer collagen would be applied to the wound as a gel, with less disease risk than current animal-based materials available on the market today. Additionally, the dressing would shape to asymmetrical wounds, degrade over time to decrease dressing change pain, resist bacterial adhesion and be highly scalable, at a low cost. The designer collagen-based dressing could be used in outpatient clinics for chronic wounds, but could also be applicable for burns and surgical site incisions.

Additionally, by defining new cues in the designer collagen (a process that, until now, has not been possible), the research team hopes to find solutions to age-old problems, including decreasing scar formation, faster medical device integration and closing chronic wounds before amputation.

While the Houston-based startup company was originally founded in 2007, only recently has the company been in a position to begin advancing its products to the next phase of development. In an effort to propel the company’s biomedical discoveries to market, ECM Technologies was recently inducted into the inaugural class of the Texas Medical Center accelerator program (TMCx), which accepted only 22 companies from a pool of over 260 applicants from across the globe.

As part of the six-month accelerator program, designed to help startups overcome commercialization hurdles, Russell will participate in workshops to understand how best to navigate the non-scientific world of intellectual property, product development, regulatory strategies, health policy, marketing, fundraising, contract negotiations and communications.

“As part of the Texas Medical Center’s strategic planning process, we developed the accelerator program to propel discoveries into real clinical therapies that benefit patients,” said Brett P. Giroir, MD, CEO of TAMHSC. “A key part of this process is forming companies and attracting capital investment, and with the accelerator program, we achieve both of these goals while keeping the companies in Texas – not losing them to the east or west coast at their very inception.”

ECM Technologies also recently received a Small Business Innovation Research Program grant from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to allow for further development on the company’s wound healing project.

“I’m often overwhelmed at the potential of this technology and I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to work towards it becoming an actual tangible product,” Russell said. “With help from TMCx and others, we are moving this technology from bench to bedside, into a product that will one day benefit those most in need and that’s an incredible feeling.”

— Holly Shive

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