Breathing room: Technology idea will treat lung ailments
Teaching his first course in spring 2008 on biomedical engineering entrepreneurship, Matt Ogle quickly learned the downside of scheduling a class for three hours on a Friday afternoon.
Competing against an early weekend, Ogle’s class began with six students and eventually settled into the semester with a die-hard roster of four. But what the course lacked in numbers it more than made up for in chemistry: A class this small — and this motivated — proved capable of doing something truly extraordinary.
All four of those UW-Madison students — plus their instructor — are now business partners.
The team formed RespiCure, a company based on a potentially transformational technology in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which affects more than 12 million people annually. With the concept and business plan developed in class, the team incorporated RespiCure in late 2009, secured venture capital funding and is seeking patent protection. The company moved in August 2010 to University Research Park on the west side of Madison.
“What’s funny is during class, none of us thought this was going to be a real product or a real company,” says Marina Durward, currently a PhD candidate in the UW-Madison Department of Cellular and Molecular Pathology. “At the very end of the class, we had to present our idea to venture capitalists and investment people. That’s when we started getting this feedback: ‘This is actually a really good idea,’ and, ‘Yes, we might be interested in investing money to support it.’”
RespiCure is addressing a huge healthcare challenge. COPD is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, annually killing 120,000 people, causing 1.5 million emergency room visits, and costing $37 billion in healthcare expenses. The condition, which affects patients with emphysema, bronchitis and other lung ailments, has no cure and aggressively worsens in patients, with only limited “band aid” treatments to alleviate symptoms. The disease hallmark is a mucus barrier that builds up in the lungs to the point where patients effectively drown: Treatments can’t get in the lungs, and air can’t get out.
“We were looking for anything that would help make this situation better and improve the quality of life for people who have COPD,” says Adam Budde, a RespiCure co-founder who earned a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and now works at GE Healthcare.
Joining Ogle, Durward and Budde as co-founders are Rachel Mosher, a bachelor’s degree recipient in biomedical engineering; and Ben Sprague, a master’s degree recipient in biomedical engineering currently in medical school at the University of Pittsburgh.
The RespiCure innovation is a new approach to COPD therapy that uses a core tool of the pulmonology profession: the bronchoscope. This device helps doctors diagnose lung problems by visualizing blockages and disease. RespiCure is developing specialized attachments to the bronchoscope that allow for more targeted drug delivery and potential healing of damaged cells and tissue. “Our goal is to get more of the drugs to target areas and less of it wasted on other parts of the lung,” says Budde, noting that less than 10 percent of the drugs in an inhaler ever reach their therapeutic targets. “If we can get down into the lungs with a bronchoscope, we can get to the parts of the lung that need treatment. We can attack through the barriers.”
Since the 2008 course, the therapeutic potential of RespiCure has moved into one of UW-Madison’s major research strengths, that of stem cell therapy. Brenda Ogle, a biomedical engineering assistant professor and wife of Matt, joined the RespiCure team last year to investigate potential stem cell transplant therapies for COPD, also using the bronchoscope as the treatment conduit.
“It fits very well into my current research, but it wasn’t a direction we were going at all,” she says. “We focus on cardiovascular regeneration primarily. But the heart and lung are closely connected and there’s comparatively little being done in the lung as far as stem cell research. This is surprising, given the magnitude of the problem.”
Matt Ogle says that RespiCure currently has clinical partnerships with Meriter Hospital in Madison and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The next big step for the company will be to demonstrate through animal research data that the treatment approach does significantly improve drug delivery. Since the bronchoscope has a Class II distinction by the Food and Drug Administration, clinical trials will not be required to get the hybrid devices into healthcare use.
Since the bronchoscope is an essential tool for lung care, the national community of about 8,000 pulmonologists will already have a comfort level with the technology and be more likely to adopt new approaches, Ogle says.
Perhaps a reflection of their status as Friday afternoon die-hards, the students’ business choice gravitated toward big challenges with big impact. Matt Ogle says the group chose to focus on COPD from a list of seven options because of the size of the problem and the relative lack of hope for current sufferers.
An entrepreneur who has started multiple companies and has more than 30 patents, Matt Ogle continues to teach entrepreneurship courses for UW-Madison engineers. But he admits it may be hard to replicate the RespiCure experience and catch more entrepreneurial lightning in a bottle.
But never say never.
“As an outsider to the higher education environment, I am amazed at how vibrant the setting is and how talented the students are,” he says. “They are able to harness their ideas and they’re ready to go. They are still very open-minded — none of their ideas have been beaten down yet.”