The scientists and scholars of Cambridge are attractive assets for the growing biotechnology industry. Between self-starting entrepreneurs and big global pharma, the city has become a garden of research and development, a hotbed for whole new medical ecosystems. At its center is Kendall Square, where brick-lined sidewalks give way to a distinctively new landscape of high-rise glass boxes and the honeycombs of activity within them.
One of these buildings is LabCentral, a coworking space unlike any other. Tucked away at 700 Main St., the historic space once hosted Alexander Graham Bell as he received the first long-distance call—all the way from Boston—in 1876. The next year, Bell Telephone Company launched. Eventually, it merged and evolved into a little outfit known as AT&T.
Appropriately, LabCentral aims to encourage a new entrepreneurial, scientific vision via its 28,000-square-foot startup incubator. Twenty-five companies share the space with a 30-bench lab, private lab suites, freezer rooms, lounge areas, biosafety cabinets and an array of other equipment that makes the entry-level fee into the biotech game significantly lower than if each startup needed to finance its own lab. Even more companies occupy a waitlist, as this is one of the few options that science startups have to develop their technology outside of a university environment. On one wall are the names of major equipment and pharmaceutical companies, sponsors of the space, who are as interested in connecting with the minds inside as the researchers are in using the freshest equipment available.
Auxocell was one of the first companies to move into LabCentral after the state-supported venture launched in 2014. A single office serves as both storage space and the headquarters for the firm, which has been around for eight years and employs only five people. Rouzbeh Taghizadeh, Chief Scientific Officer, is the only employee who works out of LabCentral, developing the processes and tools needed to extract stem cells from previously discarded biological materials—including umbilical cord blood and afterbirth. As stem cells age with our bodies, they become less useful. Expanded collection and use can be crucial, and afterbirth material carries some of the youngest stem cells around.
Auxocell has devised a way of standardizing the initial collection and processing of umbilical tissue for stem cell extraction and research. The startup’s current goal is to introduce its mechanics and techniques—including a patented collection system—to processing banks around the world. Part of this mission is encouraging a culture that understands the utility of having an additional, standardized way of collecting cells for research.
“We have our plates full in terms of just getting this product regulatory approval, whatever that is in the different areas of the world,” Rouzbeh said. “We’re just kind of pushing that forward.”
For Rouzbeh, the decision to set homebase in Kendall Square was an obvious one; he grew up outside of Boston and has spent his life at MIT, from the time he was a babe at his mother’s side right on up through his graduate career.
“I’m really happy I’m part of a community here in Cambridge and part of the growth of Cambridge. Both from a societal standpoint and from an infrastructure standpoint—and just as a community—we’re all growing,” Rouzbeh said. “It makes you realize how different and how unique this area is and the things that we’re trying to do together.”
“There are two things that are going on here. One is the development of our technology, and I can say that the development of our technology is complete,” says BioPact CEO Joe Dillon. “We know how to make the tubes. We can make them in large batches if we wanted to, so we have solved scale up. Now, what causes there to be a time lapse between now and when the tubes are used in a product depends on what use the tubes are being used for.”
The tubes to which Dillon is referring are carbon nanotubes—BioPact’s version is patented as Medical Grade Molecular Rebar (MGMR). Each tube is essentially a 10-sided straw, just 900 nanometers long, rolled up from graphene, a honeycombed, molecule-thick graphite sheet 100 times stronger than steel. Guiding agents—proteins, antibodies or peptides—can be attached to the outside of the straw to direct the vessel to its destination; inside can be placed drugs, like those used in chemotherapy, promoting more targeted administration.
“These people—the chemotherapy makes them very, very sick, and that’s because the drug is hitting places in the body that they don’t need the drug, so it’s having these adverse effects on them,” Dillon explains. “By using something like the carbon nanotubes to deliver directly to tumors, you then avoid hitting this drug in places you don’t want it, so side effects should be profoundly lower.”
The MGMR™ is the primary patented offering of the company, which has been active for two years and moved to First Street in 2015. While these nanotubes aren’t the only ones available, Dillon says that BioPact’s product hasn’t created the toxicity found with other versions, in part because BioPact’s act individually, rather than in bundles as others do. BioPact is currently working with partners and potential partners in the Boston area to find new uses for the material. FDA approval, which all new medical products need in some form, will be dependent on each individual use of the nanotube; they’re currently considering options involving drug delivery, transdermal patches and regeneration.
“There are so many potential uses for our tubes that we have to at some point focus,” Dillon says. “Our goal is to get as many partners as we can and as many of these potential uses as possible so that we can improve medicine.”