What if we could enable the regeneration of cartilage to its natural healthy state through an accessible and low-cost implant? This is the goal that Benjamin Holmes, PhD, CEO of Nanochon, hopes to achieve to help patients living with knee injuries, cartilage degeneration, or early-stage arthritis. Read on to learn more about Dr. Holmes and his vision for improving a patient’s lifetime of health in the next of our In-Depth Conversations with Residents series.
Q: Tell us the story behind your company. What is the personal and scientific inspiration behind the founding (or your work with) this company?
BH: When I was an undergrad studying mechanical engineering at The University of Virginia, my senior design class had a former student who founded a medical device startup. At the time I thought, “wow, that’s so cool…I wish I had a great idea for a startup!” Then I forgot about it and moved on. Fast forward, I went to George Washington University (GWU) and studied with Dr. Grace Zhang in the Laboratory for Nanomedicine and Tissue Engineering. I quickly fell in love with the work, focusing heavily on polymers, nanomaterials, and 3D printing for complex bone and cartilage repair. At the same time, GWU was building its support and programs for entrepreneurship. I was recruited early to participate in these programs.
Remembering my moment of inspiration in undergrad, I jumped at these opportunities. I continued to grow my skill set over the years, and in the beginning of 2016, my colleague Dr. Nathan Castro and I decided we would pursue a startup to commercialize both our works in 3D printed implants for cartilage regeneration. That was how Nanochon was born.
Nanochon is motivated by the challenges of treating injury, damage, and degeneration in joints that leads to osteoarthritis, advanced joint disease, and the need for total joint replacements. Specifically, focal cartilage lesions – which are “potholes” that develop in the cartilage surface – leave the underlying bone exposed and unprotected. The bone experiences unnatural strain and stresses, causes the patient pain, and eventually breaks down. If the cartilage damage is corrected, the course of the disease may be reversed.
Q: What do you feel sets you apart (or differentiates your approach) from others who have tried to tackle this challenge?
BH: Nanochon packs a “1-2 punch” of having an innovative technology that aims to ensure the true regeneration of cartilage to its natural healthy state while also providing a lower cost off-the-shelf manufactured implant, which can be effectively scaled to a large patient population. Unlike tissue-based products and cell-based therapies, Nanochon is a fully synthetic product. It is based on a novel polymer that replicates the micro- and nano-structure of cartilage, and is 3D printed into a complex three-dimensional matrix to rapidly recruit the body’s own stem cells at the implantation site.
In the 3D printing space, a great deal of focus has been on printing hydrogel materials for cartilage. These provide an adequate cell microenvironment but are hard to scale in a manufacturing setting, lacking “bulk properties” such as a withstanding mechanical force in the knee to generate tissue regrowth. Nanochon’s material is a thermoplastic with good mechanical properties – practical for both volume printing and implantation.
Q: What impact could your technology or innovation have on the community? What personally drives your mission?
BH: We hope that our device will provide the most effective and rapid recovery for younger patients suffering from knee injuries, cartilage degeneration, and early-stage arthritis. From a moonshot perspective, we believe this technology could do away with the need for most knee replacements, assuming that truly regenerated cartilage will last the rest of a patient’s lifetime.
We also strongly believe in the patient access and cost aspect of the product. Many cell-based products are not reliably reimbursed, meaning they are often done out of pocket and can cost patients upwards of $100K. We feel our solution is poised to be game-changing clinically but will not be prohibitively expensive, ensuring that patients will be able to afford it.
My co-founder Dr. Nathan Castro has personal experience with this challenge, having had several surgeries on his knee. My father was also a lifelong athlete who suffered from severe cartilage loss in his knee. I always wanted to see my academic work take shape in the real world and to make a direct impact, and building a startup to bring that work to clinical drives my passion.
Q: Why did you want to become a part of Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (“JLABS”)? What are you hoping to achieve as a JLABS @ Washington, DC resident company?
BH: We have been affiliated with JLABS as a virtual company since 2019, and it has always been our intention to move the company to a physical JLABS location. It made perfect sense with the opening of JLABS @ Washington, DC. Both our technology and company were developed and grown in DC. The community has always been supportive of us and as we have grown, so has the DC and DMV biotech ecosystem. We are excited to continue the Nanochon story in its hometown.
JLABS has provided Nanochon with unparalleled opportunity to gain key insights into our industry and to network with internal and external stakeholders. I do not think Nanochon would have come this far without its initial involvement in JLABS, and it offers yet another way to accelerate our growth.
For more on Nanochon, visit http://www.nanochon.com.
Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Washington, DC is open for business. Learn more and join us in pursuit of accelerating innovation in service of our patients: https://jji.jnjinnovation.com/join-jlabs-dc.
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