Los Angeles County has produced a series of revolutionary delivery devices for drugs – from the first asthma inhaler in the 1960s to the insulin pump and nicotine patch in the 1980s to inhaled insulin in the last decade.
Now, one local company is making a bid to meld medicine with nanotechnology with a breakthrough drug delivery method. Palms-based Bionaut Labs Inc. is developing nano robots that can be injected into human tissue and then guided to other parts of the body to deliver chemotherapy or other drugs to treat cancers in the brain or other difficult-to-reach areas.
The nano robots, which the company calls “bionauts,” are less than 1 millimeter long and are guided magnetically to their destination, where they deliver their drug payload. The nano robots can also be used to perform delicate surgical procedures that may be too risky for surgery by conventional means, such as puncturing cysts in the brain or spinal cord.
“We have really zoomed in on the idea of building a tiny robot for any treatment that can go anywhere in the body on demand and deliver the treatment where it’s needed,” said Michael Shpigelmacher, one of Bionaut Labs’ co-founders and its chief executive.
Israeli army roots
Shpigelmacher and the other initial co-founder, Aviad Maizels, met when both were serving in the Israeli military. Once their service was completed, they decided to team up and form PrimeSense, an Israeli 3-D motion sensor company that was acquired by Apple Inc. in 2015 for about $350 million.
After the sale, Shpigelmacher moved to the United States and entered the MBA program at Columbia University in New York. He then joined a biotech industry consulting firm, where he helped companies extend their patents.
“That’s when I came to a key realization: when it came to treating cancers and other diseases, everything boiled down to getting a drug into the bloodstream,” Shpigelmacher said. “But that seemed to me to be the wrong way to go about it. Why flood the blood system – which goes through the entire body – when what you really want to do is target a specific location in the body?”
Shpigelmacher contacted his former Israeli Army buddy Maizels. The duo discovered research at the Max Planck Institute in Germany into directed nano robots.
“It’s an old idea really – just look at that film ‘Fantastic Voyage’ from the 1960s,” Shpigelmacher explained. “But now, 50 years later, the technology has gone through a quantum leap. And while most people have been content to do further research in the area, we decided the time was right to develop an actual product that would transport drug therapies throughout the body.”
Armed with an initial $1 million in startup funds from their own savings and family and friends, Shpigelmacher and Maizels launched Bionaut Labs in 2017. The duo was later joined by another PrimeSense co-founder, Alexander Shpunt.
The nano robot transport device they developed can be inserted into tissue anywhere in the body. It uses magnetic technology for propulsion, which allows the nano robot to be controlled by operators on the outside, using images on a video monitor for guidance. Once the nano robot reaches its destination, it can either discharge its drug payload or extend tools for a surgical operation. After the mission is completed, the nano robot is guided back to the point of insertion and extracted.
Shpigelmacher said the nano robot can discharge a drug payload in a single burst or in a more diffuse manner. And it can discharge a drug that dissolves over a period of weeks. That latter approach would appear to be more suited to chemotherapy treatments applied over a period of time.
On the surgery side, the nano robot can conduct surgical incisions into small cell clusters directly at the tumor or cyst site.
The key to both applications for the nano robot technology is the video, according to bioengineering professor Song Li, who is chair of the Bioengineering Department at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, “The imaging modality is important, as this is guided therapy,” Li said. “You need that guidance to achieve what you want.”
The first step to commercialization is to test the nano robot without a drug payload.
Bionaut Labs applied for and received a Food and Drug Administration humanitarian use device designation to use the device on patients suffering from DandyWalker Syndrome, a rare pediatric disorder where a cyst intrudes on key areas of the brain. Conventional treatment involves brain surgery to puncture the cyst and relieve the pressure on the other impacted areas of the brain. Given the major intrusion into brain tissue, the surgery can be very risky.
Instead, Bionaut’s transport device – with a miniaturized surgical attachment – can come at the affected area from within.
Shpigelmacher said Bionaut Labs is now in discussions with clinical trial centers to convince them to run trials of the nano robot with this surgical application.
According to Shpigelmacher, Bionaut Labs’ biggest challenge is continued resistance in some quarters of the medical establishment to this targeted approach.
“We find we’re having to develop a rationale to change the paradigm for big pharma from flooding the blood system to much more precise targeting of the treatment,” he said.
UCLA’s Li said that if Bionaut Labs can take its nano robot approach through all the approval hurdles, it shows great potential.
“On the drug therapy side, it’s a way to integrate imaging, biomaterials and drug delivery,” Li said. “And for surgery, if there’s a pathway to move the surgical materials to the right site, then this becomes a very powerful tool for both diagnosis and surgery.”
In the bigger picture, if Bionaut Labs is successful, its nano robots could join the pantheon of breakthrough drug delivery inventions by Los Angeles companies, according to Ahmed Enany, chief executive of the Southern California Biomedical Council, a Westwood-based industry trade organization.
“If the company succeeds in bringing its microbot to market, it will be another ‘Los Angeles first,’” Enany said.