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  5. Less pain, more gain: Silver-lined bandages prevent infection and promote healing

Less pain, more gain: Silver-lined bandages prevent infection and promote healing

Photo of Ankit Agarwal in laboratory.
Ankit Agarwal Larger Image

A scientist trained for eight years in the medical field and a native of developing India, Ankit Agarwal has seen his fair share of pain. Shadowing numerous doctors, Agarwal has witnessed firsthand patient pain and discomfort, especially in those suffering from chronic wounds — burns or ulcers that could take more than seven months to heal.

Inspired by these patients, Agarwal, a 2009 Kauffman Entrepreneurial Postdoctoral Fellow in chemical and biological engineering, developed a business plan for a high-tech startup company, ImBed Biosciences. The company will create antibacterial biologic dressings to prevent infections and actively promote cellular growth and wound healing. These bandages, which can kill bacteria without harming healthy cells, will reduce patient pain, healing time and treatment costs.

In the United States, roughly six million people per year are diagnosed with a chronic wound and about two million of those develop an infection, according to Agarwal. Wound infections account for 100,000 hospital deaths and $3 billion in medical costs per year, he says.

UW-Madison Surgery Professor Dr. Michael Schurr, whom Agarwal shadows, says he is waiting for the “holy grail” of dressings that can control pain, fight infection and promote wound healing. Schurr specializes in trauma treatments, wounds and burns and changes his patients’ dressings every day to avoid infection. However, changing dressings is so painful that he has to sedate his child patients — an extra step, he says, that adds risk and often requires added care, such as a feeding tube.

For this reason, Schurr began using biologic dressings when possible. These dressings are made from an organic material that integrates into the wound and does not need removal. Yet, using them comes with up to a 20-percent infection rate, a number that is too high for Agarwal. “Imagine a person with 20 percent of their body surface burned,” he says. “If four dressings get infected, the patient is reinstated into the hospital and returns to the daily regimen of painful dressing changes, adding pain and costs.”

In 2008, Agarwal and John T. and Magdalen L. Sobota Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Nicholas Abbott developed a solution. Exploiting silver’s antibacterial properties, they created an ultra-thin film with a precise amount of silver — 0.4 percent of that used in bandages today — that will not degrade the organic material in biologic dressings. ImBed will provide the film, which is about 100 times thinner than the width of a strand of hair, to biologic dressing manufacturers to integrate into bandages in one single step. UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine Professors Christopher Murphy, Jonathan McAnulty and Charles Czuprynski are testing the new dressings on animal models.

Agarwal’s business plan for ImBed Biosciences won roughly $12,000 at the Dutch Entrepreneurial Bootcamp at Wageningen University in the Netherlands in 2009. In 2010, Agarwal won first place and $10,000 in the UW-Madison G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition and second place and $10,000 in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Competition. Now, he is participating in a three-month accelerated program as a 2010 finalist in the million-dollar Massachusetts “MassChallenge” global startup competition.

In August 2010, Agarwal, who has no previous entrepreneurial experience, concluded his extensive, yearlong Kauffman fellowship, which teaches scientists how to start high-tech companies that become million-dollar companies in the next five years.

One of the Kauffman fellowship mentors who significantly influenced Agarwal is Frank Douglas, senior partner at PureTech Ventures. From Douglas, Agarwal learned a large company might take years to develop a technology, in part because of corporate bureaucracy. Conversely, a scientist’s passion for the same technology may fuel a product’s success in a small high-tech startup.

Now that his fellowship has ended, Agarwal is focused on networking. “You are developing something to help millions of people,” he says. “The least you can do is talk about your idea to 100 people, because one person directs you to two, then two to four.”

Through Madison’s entrepreneurial community, Agarwal finds it easy to ask people for help and support. He’s even found billionaire startup junkies who help just for the fun of it and for results that help people.

UW-Madison also recognizes the importance of accelerating its translational research and Agarwal’s project earned seed funding from the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, a public-private partnership at UW-Madison designed to jump-start research that addresses healthcare and human welfare challenges.

To bring his product to market, Agarwal is seeking a commercialization partner and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Next on his list is commercial space, then a product launch in two years. However, he says, biologic dressings are only the first market. After his first partnership, he intends to recruit manufacturers of different bandages according to type of wound and healing stage.

“I feel it is my social responsibility to translate what I am doing here,” says Agarwal. “Otherwise, it’s only half of the story if I leave what I have developed and think that someone else will come along and market it.”

Andrea Parins
11/30/2010