Nova TheraNostics brightens MRI images

Eric Blackstone

Eric Blackstone

By Eran Moore Rea

It was a surprise.

Dr. Rodney Ho, UW professor of pharmaceutics, researches drug delivery for HIV treatment. In 2009, he created a new way to deliver HIV drugs to patients. HIV drugs rarely make it effectively to a patient’s lymph nodes. Ho thought binding the drugs to lipid (fatty particle) nanoparticles might help drug delivery.

He eventually tested his drugs in primates and prepared them for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) testing. From the MRI test, he saw a surprisingly bright image of the primate’s blood system.

“The MRI technician said to me, ‘I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but this is the best image I’ve ever seen for an MRI.’ We stumbled upon a new, brighter MRI contrast agent,” Ho said.

Ho and Dr. Eric Blackstone, a former C4C Technology Manager, incorporated Nova TheraNostics LLC in 2010. Bob Abbott, an experienced biotech entrepreneur, is the company’s CEO. Ho continues to help the company as a founder, and Blackstone works as Vice President of Operations.

The C4C has now finalized the company’s exclusive Intellectual Property (IP) license. Nova TheraNostics spins out of UW into a 1.5 billion dollar/year domestic MRI contrast agent market.

Improving MRI technology

Nova TheraNostics opens MRI imaging to patients with kidney disease. Most MRI contrast agents on the market quickly spread out of a patient’s blood vessels into the surrounding tissues after injection.

But Nova TheraNostics’ compound is rigorously intravenous. More that 99% of the compound stays in the blood vessels until it is eliminated through the liver. And that’s another perk—most MRI contrast agents leave the body through the kidney, making it impossible to study MRI images of patients with kidney disease.

Currently, kidneys are examined mostly with computed tomography (CAT) scans. CAT scans use x-rays that can create radiation problems for critically ill patients.

Nova TheraNostics is developing this product for the cardiovascular disease diagnostic market. Their bright contrast agent highlights the body’s blood vessels, making the vessel architecture visible.

Also, this illumination of the blood vessels can be used to examine kidneys before transplants. From patient to patient, there is a great deal of variation in the structure and even number of arteries that provide blood to the kidneys. Surgeons need to know this design before they begin transplant surgery.

And, to bring it all together, patients with kidney disease often have some form of cardiovascular disease as well.

Using the Life Sciences Discovery Fund

The C4C found Ho a group of UW MBA students to enter the technology in the UW Business Plan Competition in 2009. They made the Sweet 16 Round, but none of the business students could continue with the company.

At the time, Blackstone was looking for a biotech company to get off the ground. Blackstone earned his PhD in molecular and cellular biology as well as his MBA from UW. His graduate advisor, Mark Roth, founded the Ikaria, a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center start-up, in 2006.

In 2009, a $40,000 C4C Technology Gap Innovation Fund (the former name of the Commercialization Gap Fund) to Ho’s lab began to create the company.

But the real money came from the Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF) for early animal studies. After extending and renewing the grants several times (one of them is still on-going), Ho’s lab and Nova TheraNostics will have received a total of $300,000 from the LSDF to develop these novel MRI contrast agents.

The technology is currently in pre-clinical development with collaboration from UCLA and Duke University. Currently, the Nova TheraNostics team is looking for a new round of funding to grow their company and begin the FDA approval process.

“We are transforming the capability of MRI imaging,” said Ho. “This can save lives.”