Seventh Sense Biosystems wants to remove some of the hassle, expense, and pain of collecting blood for medical tests. The secretive startup has recently begun talks with major healthcare companies about its technology, which includes a device for collecting blood samples that almost anyone ought to be able to use without causing pain, says Doug Levinson, the firm’s co-founder and CEO.
The Cambridge, MA-based firm—which counts among its co-founders two of Boston’s medical technology gurus, R. Rox Anderson of Harvard and Bob Langer of MIT—prides itself on putting sophisticated technology into simple-to-use packages. Levinson, a partner at Flagship Ventures, managed to convince his own venture firm and the startup’s other backers at Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, MA, and Boston-based Third Rock Ventures to invest $4.75 million in its Series A round in 2008 to get the operation rolling. The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropic organization, is also supporting infectious disease research at the startup.
Last year at our big XSITE event, Levinson gave us a look at the startup’s unique chemistry that enables polymer particles to reveal certain colors or form into defined shapes when they come into contact with specific molecules in the blood or other bodily fluids. The technology opens the door to potential uses in the diagnostics field such as monitoring drug dosage levels or spotting infection. Yet Levinson was less clear last year how a patient’s blood would be tapped to enable the startup’s chemical invention to alert patients of certain health conditions.
Enter the startup’s TAP (touch activated phlebotomy) device, which is in development. With the push of a button, the system penetrates the outer layers of the skin to tap the blood. The blood then travels through tiny channels into a reservoir, where it can be analyzed to provide a diagnostic result, Levinson says. No uncomfortable finger sticks or needle injections are required. Levinson says the TAP system and associated diagnostics could be embedded in a device the size of four quarters stacked together and worn on the skin like an adhesive bandage.
Seventh Sense has been developing the TAP technology over the past year, Levinson says, with guidance from company co-founders Langer and Anderson. Anderson, a professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, is a prolific inventor of technologies involving the skin. Langer is a standout polymer scientist and drug-delivery expert. The startup is nearing completion of a prototype of its complete diagnostics system built on the TAP technology, which the firm calls its “On Vivo” platform, as in, something you wear on the body. Levinson says that conventional diagnostics will be used with the TAP system before its experimental polymer technology.
“[The TAP platform] requires further development,” Levinson says, “but we believe it will give rise to a blood-collection method that is imperceptible in terms of whether blood is even being taken.”
Seventh Sense is evaluating potential markets for its system, and Levinson declined to reveal which specific applications the firm would pursue internally. A component of its strategy will be to form partnerships with larger companies. In broader terms, the CEO says, the firm’s diagnostics could be applied to the pediatric, consumer, women’s health, geriatric, and global health markets. The Gates Foundation last year awarded Seventh Sense a $100,000 grant to research the use of the firm’s technology for malaria diagnostic testing in the developing world.
Diagnostics firms have for years sought new methods to drawing blood, particularly ways that overcome the fear and discomfort of needles, especially among small children. Perhaps the most progress on this front has been made in the diabetes testing market, which is crowded with blood-collecting devices designed to reduce the ouch-factor and improve the ease of glucose testing. A couple of the players in this market include the Illinois-based healthcare products heavyweight Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) and California’s AmbiMedInc.
Indeed, patients are pushing companies to continue improving on the comfort and simplicity of diagnostics. That market dynamic isn’t lost on Seventh Sense. “Consumers are really driving that,” Levinson says. “If you can make a claim of less pain, or faster, or more convenient, that’s what is honing the whole marketplace.”
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