Throughout much of her career as a biomedical engineer, Laura Indolfi knew that eventually she would try to become an entrepreneur. In 2010, she took classes in the biomedical enterprise program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology so she would be ready when the moment came.
About three years ago, Indolfi got her chance. She had worked in a wide range of areas, from regenerative to cardiovascular medicine. But separately, she had also developed a prototype of a drug-delivery device that could be used to treat cancerous tumors. She focused on pancreatic cancer, since it has only an 8 percent five-year survival rate. Indolfi won grants from both MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital to refine the device, and in 2014, co-founded PanTher Therapeutics. Now the company's CEO, Indolfi also was named to the 2016 class of TED fellows.
By the time pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, the tumors often are too large to be surgically removed. Doctors use chemotherapy to try to shrink them, but because the pancreatic tumor doesn't have that many blood vessels, the drugs don't often reach the tumor in the desired concentration. Indolfi's device doesn't have that problem--she likens it to a bandage that can be rolled up, slid inside a catheter, and then applied directly to the tumor to deliver the drug. The presence of the device could also provide a physical barrier to keep the tumor from growing.
"The pancreatic cancer survival rate hasn't changed in 40 years," says Indolfi, who earned her PhD at University Federico II in Naples, Italy, and is fluent in Italian, French, and English. "A lot of money has been spent, and a lot of research done, to find a new powerful agent for pancreatic cancer. But there aren't enough blood vessels inside. It's wrong for this type of tumor. The drug will go everywhere else."
Indolfi's device is designed to deliver drugs precisely where they are needed, limiting the amount that goes elsewhere. That also could bring new life to pancreatic cancer drugs that have failed in clinical trials because they were unacceptably toxic to the rest of the body, she says.
Indolfi is not the only person working on a better treatment for pancreatic cancer, of course. Among her colleagues and competitors is a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that also is working on an implantable device to deliver drugs directly to a tumor; a group at the University of Pennsylvania that is looking at using specialized antibodies to combat the disease; and a team of German researchers who are experimenting with specialized peptides.
Indolfi's team has raised about $800,000 in grant money for the research so far, working out of MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital labs. They've conducted studies in mice, which showed that the device was able to improve the results of the drug by twelve times. "It's safe, it's effective, and it's expanding the lifetime," says Indolfi.
But Indolfi knows that the funding the company has gotten is just a beginning. "You need to be a startup," she says. "The grants for academics are more for early-stage development. Now we are doing optimization and regulatory access, and we don't have resources to do it as academics... We still have a long road ahead."