UI research evolves into business

By Pat Shaver

IOWA CITY—For Joe Assouline, it’s been 10 years in the making.

Mr. Assouline is president, founder and chief scientific officer of NanoMedTrix, a new company that operates out of the University of Iowa BioVentures Center at the UI’s Research Park in Coralville.

NanoMedTrix is developing a product that would use nanoparticles, which are 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, to help with diagnosing bladder and colon cancer.

Mr. Assouline, also a faculty biomedical engineer at the UI College of Engineering and Center for Computer-Aided Design, has been researching ways to help physicians diagnose potential cancers more accurately and less invasively.

In May, NanoMedTrix became the first recipient of a grant from the Iowa Innovation Corporation, which administers the Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Outreach Program. The program provides up to $25,000 in assistance to Iowa companies. The company has also been supported by the UI Research Foundation and the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

NanoMedTrix is developing multi-modal nanoparticle contrast agents with the goal of revolutionizing medical diagnostics through non-invasive targeted imaging and therapeutic interventions. Potential clinical applications include the early, safe and accurate detection of diseases such as bladder cancer and colorectal cancer.

Mr. Assouline has developed contrast agents capable of flagging specific tissues or pathologies and have the potential for use in targeted radiology and therapeutic interventions. The alternative may be a colonoscopy, for example.

“That’s something that is now recommended for everybody above the age of 50. It’s very unpleasant and 99.9 percent of the time it’s negative,” he said. “Instead of doing a colonoscopy, you drink (a formula with the nanoparticles) and if it binds to cells, it’s something you have to check, if not, then you’re free.”

Early detection of these cancers dramatically improves patient outcomes, and reduces the financial costs associated with their treatment, Mr. Assouline said.

“The key issue in this is the essence of our existence here. As professors, we tell students that we’re here to enable health care in the technical aspect. We all have ideas, we all do research, but how often do you see research that’s a game-changer,” he said of his research and development.

In order to accomplish the next goal, which is creating a plan to commercialize the technology and product and sell to physicians and hospitals, Mr. Assouline said he continues to seek investors and donors.

“We’re also working with the state to help with appropriation. We only get a small amount of money compared to what it is we need,” he said. “People see agriculture as a necessity. But we have a premier medical facility, yet if you do searches you’ll see that it is a miniscule amount of money that’s allocated to medical devices or high-tech companies.”

The university initially owned the license until Mr. Assouline purchased it. The UI will collect a royalty, he said.

“The thing is if you get funding from the state or federal (government), they also want a piece of that action. You could have sold 80-90 percent of your company before you even start, and it’s not just money, it’s how you make decisions,” Mr. Assouline said. “Provided we have funding to pay lawyers, and do clinical trials, if all those things come out well, within a few years we will be able to deploy some of this and it can be used,” he said.