The story behind Gecko Biomedical’s biocompatible sealant starts in the summer of 2009, when Boston Children’s Hospital‘s chief of cardiac surgery reached out to Jeffrey Karp about a problem he was experiencing in the operating room.
Dr. Pedro del Nido told Karp, a professor of medicine at Harvard and the director of the Laboratory for Accelerated Medical Innovation at nearby Brigham & Women’s Hospital, that he was operating on kids who had holes in between the chambers of their heart. He needed a way to patch up these hearts with a material that would grow with his patients – and he needed Karp’s help to do it.
Karp and his lab decided that they would try to develop a material that could immediately attach to seal a hole and would later degrade, leaving behind the child’s own tissue.
“But we knew this was probably one of the harshest environments inside the human body where a tissue adhesive would have to work,” Karp told the audience last week at the 7th annual Partnership Opportunities in Drug Delivery event, presented by The Conference Forum.
On average, the heart beats 60 times per minute, Karp pointed out, so any material would need to withstand thousands or even millions of expansion and contraction cycles.
It would also need to be biodegradable, elastic and resistant to blood. Any material they developed would have to support a patient’s cells and resist washing out while a clinician placed it on the heart, but also adhere on demand.
Karp had a few materials that could address a number of these demands, but not all of them. So he returned to the drawing board.
“It’s really tough to think differently and bring in new ideas. One of the ways we tried to solve that problem was to turn to nature for inspiration,” Karp explained. “It’s really this idea that every plant, every animal, every creature that’s alive today is here because it has solved an incredible number of problems. So, in essence, we’re actually surrounded by solutions.
“Think of the tens of billions or hundreds of millions of years of research and development happening all around us,” he added.
Karp and his researchers began by studying the creatures that live in a wet, dynamic environment – similar to the conditions inside a beating heart. They narrowed in on worms, slugs and snails, because these are creatures that manage to hold their grip on surfaces even when it’s raining.
All of them secrete a viscous fluid, Karp pointed out, and these adhesives all contain hydrophobic acids – a quality that allows them to repel water. That combination inspired Karp and his team.
“If [the material] is hydrophobic, we can push it up inside the beating heart against the tissue and it will repel the blood away from the surface of the heart. Then, if it’s viscous, it will stay there long enough for the clinician to pull it in the right location and then shine light and get to a final cure,” he explained.
They worked with fiber optics experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a material that responds to light. And after years of iterative experiments and successes in animal models, the team decided that they had something worth bringing to market.
So they started a company called Gecko Biomedical. The co-inventor of the sealant and one of Karp’s colleagues, Maria Pereira, serves as the company’s chief innovation officer.
In September, Gecko Biomedical won CE Mark clearance to use the polymer in vascular surgery alongside surgical sutures.
And Karp said the company doesn’t plan to stop there – the sealant could be used in a wide array of applications, including drug delivery.
“There’s an opportunity here to load this with drugs and deploy it potentially anywhere in the body,” he explained. “Even via minimally invasive procedures to kind of create a drug depot that could deliver drugs for long periods of time.”
Karp’s philosophy behind developing a product and building a company is two-fold, he said, pointing towards Gecko Biomedical as an example.
“Take the basic idea from nature and then improve on it for your own purposes, ” he said. “The other tool that we’ve used is radical simplicity. There’s been many other projects in the lab where we’ve employed this and essentially, we often gravitate to complexity because it’s one way to get into good journals. But it actually goes the opposite way in translation – we reduce our chance of translation.”