Carolina-NC State labs team up to bust clots

Med-tech startup SonoVascular combines drug-based and mechanical therapies to treat patients with blood clots.

Three individuals standing next to each other in front of combined UNC and NC State logo flag.
Paul Dayton (center), the William R. Kenan Distinguished Professor and chair of the UNC-NC State of biomedical engineering joint department, said the collaboration between the two universities “allowed this project to be very successful.” (Sarah Daniels/Innovate Carolina)

In the past, physicians mostly used drugs to dissolve blood clots to treat people suffering from deep-vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism. But certain risks and high costs later caused clinicians to turn to mechanical devices to capture and/or suction out clots. The devices didn’t use drugs, but the process had its own safety issues.

“We suggest that the pendulum is going to swing back toward the middle because physicians would like to have the benefit of both approaches,” said SonoVascular founder and CEO Dan Estay. “We’re combining pharmacological and mechanical approaches into one hybrid system to get a more effective and safer outcome that does not require the patient to be treated in the ICU.”

SonoVascular’s SonoThrombectomy system brings together several elements: ultrasound, microbubbles, low-dose thrombolytic drugs and a less aggressive mechanical retrieval/aspiration device, said Estay.

“The most novel aspect is that we use intravascular ultrasound in combination with microbubbles and low-dosage thrombolytic drugs,” Estay said. “And based on what we’ve seen, we believe that after a physician performs that first part of the procedure, they are then better able to use a gentler mechanical device to physically extract any residual clot that remains, which improves your safety profile.”

Academic collaboration, commercial innovation

The ultrasound catheter behind SonoVascular’s unique procedure works in tandem with microbubbles and thrombolytic drugs to break up clots better. The developers of the underlying ultrasound technology are Xiaoning Jiang, Dean F. Duncan Distinguished Professor in NC State University’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, and Paul Dayton, William R. Kenan Distinguished Professor and chair of the UNC-NC State of biomedical engineering joint department.

Research collaborators for nearly 15 years, Jiang and Dayton published a research paper in 2017 at the conclusion of grant they secured from the National Institutes of Health to investigate intervascular coronary imaging. A description of their research published in a vascular journal caught the eye of Estay, who contacted Jiang to express interest.

“Amazingly, the second or third day after the publication, Dan sent me an email saying that he was located in the Research Triangle area and was a veteran in the field with years of experience,” said Jiang, who along with Dayton, serves as a scientific adviser to SonoVascular. “We met and I showed him around our lab at NC State. He showed interest, and the company started in 2018 right after the paper published.”

By combining the respective research strengths of both universities, Jiang’s and Dayton’s labs built a productive partnership. “The great collaboration between Xiaoning’s lab at NC State —which has world-class expertise in pure engineering and transducer design — and our lab at UNC-Chapel Hill, which focused on a lot of applications — the chemistry, microbubbles and testing — in combination with the clinical expertise of UNC physicians allowed this project to be very successful,” said Dayton. “We’ve had students go back and forth between our labs who bring devices to Carolina or microbubbles to NC State so we can all do studies together.”

The universities’ tech transfer arms — the NC State Office of Research Commercialization and UNC Office of Technology Commercialization — work together to manage intellectual property assets that are licensed to SonoVascular, some of which are jointly owned by the schools.

“We have an intellectual property sharing memorandum across the campuses, so some of the patents are filed through NC State, and some are filed through Carolina,” said Dayton. “The two universities have a path forward for negotiation, so it’s worked very smoothly and has been very enabling for the commercial direction.”

Read more about SonoVascular’s clot-busting combination.