LOWELL, Mass. – As COVID-19 threatens millions of lives, the research and development at the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2) has taken on increased urgency and focus.
A business incubator for biotechnology and medical device companies, M2D2
is a partnership between UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School. Research by two startups at the center hold promise in the fight against the disease. Such research has been designated by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker as among essential operations in the state, allowing the scientists to remain on the job at M2D2’s Lowell location while practicing safety precautions including social distancing.
Biotech company Versatope has been working to develop a universal flu vaccine. The M2D2-based company is now also using its technology to design possible vaccines for COVID-19.
“Pandemics have been a threat throughout history, but this moved so much faster than most people had anticipated,” said Versatope CEO Christopher Locher, who has worked in the infectious disease field for 30 years.
Versatope is pursuing two different tracks for a vaccine. One approach involves replicating a portion of the “spike” protein on the novel coronavirus that latches onto human cells for a vaccine that would create antibodies in humans to block this protein. The company is also designing a vaccine based on the amino acid residues that come in contact with antibodies that could defend against the virus, according to Locher, who is seeking National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to support the first approach and a public-private partnership to back the second.
Another M2D2 company, Nuclease Probe Technologies, is working on a faster testing method for COVID-19, building on its expertise in developing simple tests to detect bloodstream infections such as sepsis.
“Like everyone else, we’re concerned about the coronavirus and we consider this really important work in these times,” said company CEO James McNamara.
Steven Tello, a member of M2D2’s leadership team and UMass Lowell’s vice provost of graduate, online and professional studies, is confident in what these dedicated researchers and scientists can achieve.
“The university’s support of M2D2 for the past decade has helped create an ecosystem that attracts innovative life science startups and researchers, people who are ready to tackle the challenge COVID-19 presents,” Tello said. “We are fortunate to have companies like Versatope and Nuclease Probe already working here. We all look forward to celebrating their successes.”
M2D2 is uniquely poised to assist entrepreneurs working to eradicate the novel coronavirus. The business incubator is a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Research, Innovation and Ventures (DRIVe) network, run by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to respond to critical public-health emergencies. M2D2 is also home to the Center for Advancing Point of Care Technologies (CAPCaT), which assists inventors in developing products and technologies for patients with heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders. The center was established through a $7.9 million grant from the NIH.
Through M2D2, entrepreneurs can gain access to these and other resources for funding to support their innovations.
“People are laser-focused right now and brainstorming hard about how their slice of the health-care or biomedical enterprise could be used to address this very acute crisis that we’re in. It’s amazing how people have come together,” said M2D2 Co-director Nathaniel Hafer, assistant professor of molecular medicine at UMass Medical School in Worcester.
Since its launch in 2007, M2D2 has assisted more than 100 startups across its three sites in Lowell and Worcester and is affiliated with more than 50 other companies around the world. In addition to lab and other research space and assistance in finding funding opportunities, the incubator provides resources for business development, clinical assistance and prototype design.
“We’re able to help these early-stage, emerging biotech companies from an idea all the way through to commercialization,” said M2D2 Director of Operations Mary Ann Picard.
UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its more than 18,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be leaders in their communities and around the globe. www.uml.edu