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April 17, 2023 Startups, Technology & Innovation

‘Moon Shot’: UConn’s Laurencin forms new startup amid quest to help humans regrow limbs

PETE MORENUS/UCONN UConn’s Dr. Cato Laurencin is a pioneer in the field of regenerative medicine and the Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery.
Dr. Cato Laurencin
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In 2019, the Veterans Administration cared for more than 95,000 service members who had lost limbs.

Over the prior decade, the VA says it saw a 34% increase in the number of veterans with amputations who received care.

Those stark statistics have meant there’s been a huge investment in recent years into fields including prosthetics, as ever more complex medical devices try to return as much function as possible to these wounded warriors.

But at UConn, another entirely different approach to this problem has been gathering pace over the last eight years. The startling question it’s trying to answer: What if amputees could regrow their own new limbs?

“Obviously this is a great big moon shot, maybe even a Mars shot, but we’re excited about the progress that we’ve made,” said Dr. Cato Laurencin. “Also, we’re excited about the types of technologies that we’re developing along the way.”

Laurencin, the Van Dusen Distinguished Endowed Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at UConn, is no stranger to moonshot endeavors, and his track record speaks for itself.

He began in the late 1980s contributing to the research that made it possible to grow bone outside of the human body. He went on to found the field of regenerative engineering, and pioneered a way to help the body regrow the vulnerable ACL knee ligament.

This year he opened UConn’s new Cato T. Laurencin Institute for Regenerative Engineering, a multidisciplinary effort aimed at developing new approaches in medicine, science, engineering and technology to support his latest moonshot effort.

Launched in 2015, that project is dubbed the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) project, and it set the ambitious goal of being able to regrow a limb by 2030. Laurencin received the $5 million National Institutes of Health’s Director’s Pioneer Award for the work, and has since also been funded by the Department of Defense.

A little over halfway through his timeline, he is still targeting the same end date, although at the moment the complete process remains elusive.

But on the journey there he and his team — he estimates across disciplines some 50 scientists are involved in one way or another — have explored numerous areas of developmental biology to expand the toolbox for regenerative engineering, as well as numerous ways to get the resulting technologies to the marketplace.

For instance, the project has fostered systems for the creation of bone, ligament, tendon, nerves, blood vessels and cartilage.

“We’ve been able to really hone in and create all the different musculoskeletal tissues of the upper and lower extremity,” said Laurencin.

A reception for the new Laurencin Institute was held in February at the UConn School of Medicine in Farmington.

The team has studied salamanders that are able to regenerate limbs throughout their lives. That work yielded knowledge of a new type of cell that is key to the regenerative process.

“We call these GRID cells, because we think that they’re part of the network of cells that help limbs regenerate,” said Laurencin.

GRID stands for Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic, and he hypothesizes that understanding the function of GRID cells will lead to the ability to induce regeneration in humans by engineering a positional information grid to control the response of cells.

The team has also been able to generate synthetic artificial stem cells, or what they call SASC cells, a technology on which they have a patent pending. These cells are able to induce regeneration in joints.

“If we take an animal and induce arthritis, with heavy joint destruction, if we place our SASC cells in that joint, it regenerates the joint,” said Laurencin. “So, we have a pathway now for joint regeneration. And now we’re scaling that up. We’ve done small animals. Now we want to do it in large animals and eventually do it in humans.”

‘Bench to bedside’

Laurencin said he’s open to any number of ways to get his technologies to the marketplace — licensing the technology, partnering with existing companies, co-development, or going it alone as a startup.

“One of the emphasis areas that we have is really developing these technologies beyond the lab and into products. To bring them to patients through commercialization,” he said. “We have a suite of technologies from new ways to regenerate bone with new bone matrices, new ways to treat shoulder injuries like rotator cuff tears, and new ways to be able to now regenerate joints.”

Laurencin is no stranger to commercialization efforts. To bring his regenerative ACL tendon technology to the market, he co-founded a startup called Soft Tissue Regeneration, which later became Biorez under a new CEO, with Laurencin retaining an ownership interest.

In 2022, Biorez was sold to medical device company CONMED for $85 million.

To take some of these latest developments to market, he’s forming a new company called Healing Orthopedic Technologies Bone, or HOT Bone. The company is examining five major research assets from the HEAL project for potential commercialization.

At the moment, it’s filling its leadership roles and beginning to go after venture capital funding to meet its milestones.

What’s exciting for the university in the prospect of commercializing technology out of the venture is the size of Laurencin’s research group, and its level of international recognition.

Abhijit Banerjee

“Our biggest asset is the intellectual property we generate,” said Abhijit Banerjee, associate vice president for Technology Commercialization Services at UConn. “University tech transfer offices are really underappreciated in the grand scheme of things.”

His office is involved on several fronts across UConn, the first of which he characterizes as becoming very aggressive in defending technology that’s protected by patents.

But they’re also responding to the changing federal landscape. The spotlight that the COVID-19 pandemic threw on the process of vaccine development, and by extension all scientific research, has changed many things for university scientists.

“We are seeing more and more federal impositions on foreign influence,” he said. “So, we become the eyes and ears of the university, given the sensitivity around some research.”

His office is also involved in building what he calls an entrepreneurial culture in the university, encouraging faculty to found startups, fostering linkages with state agencies like CTNext, and courting industry players at medical device or pharmaceutical companies who might want to form partnerships with UConn faculty to solve specific problems.

Startups participating in UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Storrs, Farmington and Stamford raised $183 million in fiscal 2022. That pushed the total funding raised by TIP companies since the program’s 2003 founding to over $1 billion.

“One of the things that universities are mandated to do is to make the inventions that are developed in the university go to the marketplace,” said Banerjee. “Basically, from bench to bedside.”

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