Startup uses light to treat pain
May 29, 2019
By Eduardo Geraque | FAPESP Innovative R&D – In 2007, Marcelo Sousa, then still a student in his last year of physics at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC) in Northeast Brazil, had to go to several hospitals in Fortaleza, state capital of Ceará, because of a disease in the family. The future physicist’s grandfather had cancer. Sousa believed he had to do something about the outdated treatment offered the patient, which in his opinion was based on nineteenth-century technology.
“My grandfather’s situation, and the feelings I was left with after his death, made me decide I should use physics in a more applied way. At the time, I studied only theoretical physics,” Souza recalls.
He took the first step toward the world of innovation at the same time as he decided to earn a master’s degree. He read Física para Ciências Biológicas e Biomédicas by Emico Okuno et al. as if it were a novel and began to understand how closely linked physics and biology could be. “I wrote to Okuno to ask her to supervise my master’s research. She replied that she had retired and recommended a lab at the University of São Paulo’s Physics Institute (IF-USP). Once there, I decided to specialize in photomedicine, then a practically unknown field,” Sousa says.
He went on to do a PhD and found out that he could go to Harvard via the Brazilian government’s program Science Without Borders. His doctoral research in physics culminated in the discovery of photoneuromodulation. In this process, light makes neurons conduct less pain to create an analgesic effect in the patient with no side effects.
The journey from his PhD research, which was basic science, and the technological innovation developed by Bright Photomedicine, founded in November 2014, began at an innocent soccer game in the United States. “I remember telling friends about my research after the game at MIT. They all said it was sufficient to found a tech startup. In the US, people get very excited about technological innovation,” Sousa says.
He experienced total immersion in the world of innovation in 2013-14. “I realized it was an environment from which I’d profit much more in professional terms than by simply following a traditional academic career,” he explains. “I learned a lot because people in the industry have a different vision from scientists. It’s very interesting.”
To the basic science he did for his PhD, Sousa and the collaborators who joined the project added technology, algorithms and big data. In practice, what the firm is developing in the field of photomedicine is a technology in which the physician or physical therapist controls the dose and precise type of light suitable for each patient. In cases of severe chronic pain, light application has an analogous effect to drug delivery. “The device itself is simple. It can be carried in a backpack. The difference is all in the cloud. The software we developed calculates everything and indicates the ideal dose for the disease and patient concerned. It’s digital medication,” he says. The algorithm calculates the length of time for light application and the physical characteristics of the application.
Bright Photomedicine is hosted by the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology (CIETEC), an incubator attached to the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (IPEN). The scientific idea that gave rise to the startup was supported by FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE). The firm won additional funding in 2017 for the PIPE Phase 2 project “Development and techno-scientific validation of a wearable device for phototherapy”.
In addition to support from FAPESP, the firm has also obtained funding from public and private sources in the last four years. In 2015, it won the Startup Farm accelerator program. In 2019, it raised R$1.5 million via Kria, one of Brazil’s largest online investment platforms. A total of 70 private investors allocated R$21,000 each on average. The firm’s first prototype in 2016 was the main milestone in its history to date, according to Sousa.
The protocol for the use of photomodulation is being tested in a clinical trial involving patients with knee osteoarthritis treated at Hospital das Clínicas, the general and teaching hospital attached to the University of São Paulo’s Medical School (FM-USP). Now Sousa and the Bright Photomedicine team are looking at other fields in which the technology they have developed can be applied.
“In addition to the analgesic effect, we’re also researching the use of light as an anti-inflammatory and/or as a neurological treatment for migraine, depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” Sousa says, adding that presentations on these next steps to international workshops have been well received by the scientific community.
Theoretically, the therapeutic effect of light is due to photochemical reactions inside cells. In this process, biological tissue produces endogenous drugs that restore the organism to a healthy state, also opening up the possibility of using the technology to heal wounds or for postoperative treatment in general.
“It’s a market with vast potential,” Sousa says. “Our technology is unique. We’ve created a form of organic digital medication in which the organism itself is stimulated to produce the drug. We have no competitors using the same approach. We have a ‘blue ocean’ horizon.”
The firm believes that millions of people who are in chronic pain could benefit from the technology, which is itself painless, noninvasive, and free of side effects, increasing the likelihood of business success.
With the arrival of other partners and executives, Sousa points out, he has achieved the privilege of working as a scientist for 90% of his time so far in 2019. “That’s not always easy in this innovation universe,” he says. The firm will publish quantitative results on the clinical trial in progress at FM-USP.
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