Thirty-four years ago the five-year survival rate for women with breast cancer was 74 percent. Today, that number is 99 percent.
The good news in increased life expectancy also exposed a gap in innovation in breast reconstruction surgery. “The better the survival rate, the more important long-term quality of life is,” says Laura Bosworth, CEO and co-founder of TeVido BioDevices. “Women are getting diagnosed early; some are doing preventative mastectomies at younger ages, and reconstruction is becoming more critical.”
Surgeries to reconstruct patients’ breasts still leave much to be desired, particularly around the woman’s nipple, she adds. TeVido is using 3D printing technology to take a woman’s own cell and fat tissue to, essentially, build a better nipple.
The Austin, TX, company today announced that it has received a $150,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Since its founding in 2011, TeVido has also raised $900,000 in National Science Foundation grants.
Regenerative medicine—the field of reconstructing skin, and other internal organs, from human cells—is among the most cutting-edge sectors of medical innovation today. At the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, for example, Doris Taylor is working on building the first in-human bio-artificial heart. In San Diego, my colleague Bruce Bigelow recently wrote about Organovo, which says its bio-printing technology created a 3D sample of living human liver tissue, which, for the first time, was used to predict that a pre-clinical drug candidate would have a toxic effect on the liver.
TeVido’s technology focuses in on the nipple and areola, a relatively more simple set of fat and skin cells. The company’s secret sauce, as it were, is in using the 3D printers to create a vascular structure that can deliver oxygen to the tissue and keep the cells alive. Creating that capillary map will be the target of the funds, Bosworth said.
Bosworth calls herself an accidental entrepreneur, having met her co-founder Thomas Boland, who developed TeVido’s technology at the University of Texas at El Paso. A veteran of Dell and IBM, Bosworth graduated from the university and is on the board of its college of engineering. Upon retirement, she said, she began to mentor professors with promising projects. “My intent was just to be a facilitator and assistant, but the more I worked with him, the more I realized the impact on so many lives,” she says. “So I said, ‘Let’s start a company.’”
The pair had thought about other uses for the technology, say, in wound care, but ultimately settled on breast reconstruction. “I was shocked; nobody talks about the difficulties in reconstruction,” she says. “They think, the implants are in; boom, everything’s great. This is one of those things where there is very little awareness.”
It’s still early days for TeVido. To get to clinical trials, Bosworth says the company would need to raise nearly $8 million. But she says the validation of receiving SBIR and NSF grants—along with the progress TeVido will make with the funds—will help sell the company’s story down the line to angel investors and venture capital firms.
And Bosworth says the market is very real, and largely overlooked. Nearly 300,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer last year, according to the American Cancer Society. About a quarter of that group will get mastectomies, making breast reconstruction an option.
Bosworth says the problem with current reconstruction techniques is that they can’t create a nipple and areola with lasting power. Right now, surgeons make some cuts where the nipple and areola should be on a reconstructed breast and then twist that tissue to create a nipple. To give the area a darker skin tone as exists naturally, tattoos are applied afterwards. Unfortunately, over time those tissues flatten and the tattoos fade.
And as younger women detect and treat their cancers, the need for long-lasting reconstruction surgery is growing, she adds. “Patients with loss of the nipple and areola continue to experience psychological distress long after the overall breast shape has been reconstructed,” Bosworth says.
Bosworth says TeVido’s technology could give those women a more realistic replacement. “Plastic surgeons are excited to have somebody working on something to make life better—a better solution—for their patients,” she says.