When it came to engineering, Ashutosh Chilkoti, Ph.D., wanted to break the mold. Early in his career, he identified an innate link between engineering and biology, and he dove in head-first.

“I’m trained in surface science. There wasn’t much biology in my Ph.D., and I decided that I wanted to learn molecular biology because it was new at the time,” said Chilkoti, Theo Pilkington Professor of Biomedical Engineering. “Very few engineers were doing it.”

Through a post-doctoral program, he discovered the natural relationship between proteins and biomolecular techniques. He was one of the first engineers to embark upon using biomolecular materials in this area.

His studies and research eventually led to two companies – PhaseBio Pharmaceuticals and Sentilus. To date, PhaseBio has raised $65 million and taken its technology into three clinical trials. Sentilus, he said, is still waiting for the right partner.

PhaseBio focuses on using recombinant biopolymers, called elastin-like polypeptides (ELPs), for drug delivery. Both peptides, naturally-occurring biological molecules, and proteins can fuse to ELPs, augmenting their stability, bioavailability, activity, and ease of administration. It also increases their solubility which can be triggered by either a temperature change or the presence of salt. Improved solubility allows for more precise drug delivery as fused proteins bind with therapeutic drugs at particular receptor sites. So far, PhaseBio has developed peptide drugs for diabetes and heart disease.

Once he launched one company, Chilkoti, who is also the Director of the Center for Biologically Inspired Materials and Material Systems, realized he enjoyed taking his work and research outside the lab.

“After PhaseBio, I realized it’s fun to have a life outside the university,” he said. “I started to see that my research spins out a lot of intellectual property. Since we develop new technologies, we were very translational before translational even existed.”

And, it’s from this type of work that Sentilus was created. Chilkoti and his team developed a polymer coating that improves clinical diagnostics by completely eliminating the binding of protein cells at the surface. This property allows clinicians to identify proteins in blood, serum, urine, and saliva at levels smaller than previously possible. The technology resides on a self-contained chip and can provide several analyses based on a single drop of blood.

“It’s the ultimate point-of-care device,” he said. “It’s very simple and can be read at the bedside or on the smartphone.”

In addition to these protein tests, the technology could also be effective in isolating rare blood types, coating implants and biomedical devices, and developing better biotechnology tools, such as magnetic capture beads.

Any actual impact on drug delivery, however, it at least 10-to-15 years away, Chilkoti said, because Sentilus is still searching for the right pharmaceutical partner.

At several steps along the way, Duke has helped Chilkoti and his team move their discoveries forward. Not only did the University award Chilkoti a Duke-Coulter Translational Partnership Grant that provided him with the seed money to develop many of his technologies, but the grant also supported work for which more traditional funding, such as awards from the National Institutes of Health, are more difficult to secure. Additionally, Duke helped file patents on Chilkoti’s discoveries.

Ultimately, he said, his research and the companies will be truly successful when they’ve reached the point of patient care.

“All we can hope for is that this will all get to market,” he said.

To read about more Duke entrepreneurs, click here.

Written by Whitney L.J. Howell