San Antonio — For breast cancer and trauma patients who need surgery, reconstructing the nipple and areola is an important and difficult part of that procedure. From skin grafts and prosthetics to tattoos and 3-D cellular printing, the ways to rebuild that tissue are numerous, but they often come with drawbacks. The surgically repaired skin can flatten, lack sensation, or look unnatural.
A preclinical San Antonio life sciences startup founded by two Ph.D. students, NovoThelium, is developing another method that they hope will result in a better nipple. The co-founders use nipple tissue from cadavers that, after having old DNA and cells removed, can be used in patients who are having a breast reconstructed. NovoThelium says its decellularization process allows the nipple to act like a collagen scaffold, retaining certain proteins and structures that, as a part of the healing process, lets the nipple be repopulated with a patient’s own cells, developing into a more natural nipple and areola.
“The proteins that are left behind, and the structure of the collagen from the actual tissue, help the cells know how to behave and form into that scaffold,” says Lauren Cornell, a co-founder of NovoThelium and student enrolled in a University of Texas translational science Ph.D. program.
NovoThelium is still quite young, and hasn’t tested its product beyond the lab. But after winning two startup pitch competitions in the first week of May, Cornell and co-founder Bianca Cerqueira now have the funding to begin animal studies in pigs later this year.
NovoThelium won $20,000 by taking first place out of 10 teams at Launch SA’s Venture Challenge Awards Ceremony in San Antonio on May 4, a pitch competition that capped the weeklong Small Business Festival in the Alamo City. (NovoThelium also took $600 for winning the audience award.)
The next day, NovoThelium says it came away with a second win, taking home first place out of 25 teams at the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition in Austin. That earned the co-founders $10,000 and a few other perks, including an invitation to join the Texas Venture Labs accelerator.
With the funding, NovoThelium hopes to begin the animal study later this year, which should give it a better understanding of the technology’s capabilities. The company has filed international patent paperwork and is still working through the process, Cerqueira says.
More than 250,000 invasive breast cancer diagnoses are expected this year, according to the American Cancer Society. The technology could be applicable to the military, too, given the need for surgery in wounded soldiers.
Before the two recent startup competition wins, Cornell and Cerqueira had taken in about $149,000 in other funding from individuals, other pitch events, and grants. They won two awards and $35,000 as one of 42 companies selected for the Rice Business Plan Competition last month. And this summer, NovoThelium will participate in the National Science Foundation’s i-Corps program, which provides $50,000 to be used for customer exploration, Cornell says.
If all goes well in the animal testing, NovoThelium wants to seek a human clinical trial, which would require as much as $2 million in formal investment funding, Cerqueira says. The entrepreneurs say they want to create a product that lets women have an alternative to reconstruction.
“Not everyone is interested in having a reconstructed nipple,” Cerqueira says.
Cornell and Cerqueira aren’t the only scientists trying to develop new methods for repairing and replacing nipples. TeVido BioDevices, an Austin-based biotech, has been working on a method of using patients’ own cells and fat tissues to create a vascular structure with 3D printers.
And another student in New Orleans at Tulane University has developed a method of decellularizing nipples that can be grafted into patients. A company, BioAesthetics, spun out based on the science. NovoThelium says that its decellularization technology is distinct from BioAesthetics’, the company has filed for different patent claims, and its legal counsel believes it has opportunities it can pursue, Cornell says.
In addition to NovoThelium, Cornell is participating in a postgraduate fellowship program at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research. Cerqueira is graduating from her Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at University of Texas at Antonio and UT Health this month and plans to work at NovoThelium full time.
The startup founders are also trying to help women in another way: by offering an internship program to students considering a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. NovoThelium’s first intern worked with the company for a year—initially having only signed on for a month—after discovering she liked lab work, Cornell says. The former intern now plans to pursue a four-year degree in science and NovoThelium gave her a $500 scholarship from its grant funding to do so, Cornell says. (You can read more about the impact the student says the internship had on her life here.) The company is taking on a second intern soon.