University of Minnesota startup to attack vein disease in legs

When Mike Selzer first reviewed the work of University of Minnesota scientist Dr.Erik Cressman — a way to kill cancer cells in the liver using chemical-generated heat — the veteran medical device executive was impressed.

Cool technology, he thought. Terrible idea for a company.

“You can’t build a company around [liver cancer],” said Selzer, an adviser at the time to the school’s Venture Center, the unit of the Office for Technology Commercialization responsible for spinning out companies from university technology. “It’s just not a large market. It was one of those things where there was really good technology. But the commercialization wasn’t as obvious.”

Normally, Selzer says, university researchers invent stuff but have no idea what to do with it. In Dr. Cressman’s case, the aim was too specific.

“The university doesn’t have a lot of entrepreneurs,” Selzer said. ‘There are only a few, select people who really get it.”

Ultimately, Selzer identified a large market for the technology — chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), a blood vessel disorder in the legs.

Earlier this month, the school officially spun out XO Thermix Medical Inc., the latest addition to a growing stable of university-bred medical startups, including MiroMatrix Inc. and Hennepin Life Sciences.

CVI, a common condition that primarily affects women, especially pregnant ones and patients who stand frequently, occurs when faulty valves in the legs prevent blood from returning back up to the heart via veins. As a result, blood pools in the lower half of the body, causing swollen legs, skin discoloration and painful ulcers.

So instead of targeting cancerous liver cells, XO Thermix hopes to use Dr. Cressman’s chemical ablation technology to kill diseased vein tissue causing the blockage.

Medical device companies are widely exploring using heat, radio frequencies, lasers, and even cold temperatures to treat a host of cardiovascular diseases.

In August, Medtronic Inc. won approval from Canadian regulator to sell its Ablation Frontiers Cardiac Ablation System, which uses radio frequency energy to kill diseased tissue that causes the heart to quiver or beat abnormally, a condition known as atrial fibrillation (AF).

Medtronic also paid $380 million to purchase CryoCath Technologies Inc. in 2008. The Canadian company makes catheters (tubes) and balloons that can deliver subzero temperatures to the heart. The technology restores normal electrical signals by freezing the tissue or pathways behind the irregular quivering.

Here’s where XO Thermix stands out, Selzer said. Normally, doctors need large, expensive equipment to create the necessary energy to target and destroy diseased tissue without harming the patient.

What Cressman essentially created is a cheap and quick way of generating heat by mixing together certain chemicals. Doctors deliver the chemical cocktail to the vein walls through a catheter-based balloon system.

The chemicals in the balloon grow hot enough to kill the diseased tissue and then form a harmless substance after they complete the job.

The technology “is a simple, fast and easy way to create ablation,” Selzer said. “You don’t have to mess around with that other stuff (lasers, probes). It’s a shorter procedure, which reduces the cost of treating CVI. We can put this thing anywhere.”

If anyone has experience in evaluating technologies, it’s Selzer.

In 2007, the former CEO of Urologix who once headed Medtronic’s neurostimulation business founded ConcepTx Medical with prominent local medical device entrepreneurs Dale Spencer and Mike Berman. ConcepTx’s goal was to accelerate the development of promising technologies from struggling startups.

The company quickly won a $4 million investment from venture capital firms Versant Ventures and Advanced Technology Ventures. But the country’s economic collapse a year later made things too difficult.

“No one wanted to put down any long term money,” Selzer said. “I didn’t think we were going to make progress fast enough.”

So Selzer sold his share of ConcepTx and eventually found his way to the university’s Venture Center as a CEO-in-Residence.

Selzer has high hopes for XO Thermix as a platform technology. If successful with CVI, the company hopes to apply its ablation technique to kill solid tumors in patients suffering from liver, prostate and breast cancers.

However, several challenges remain. Sticking a potentially dangerous mix of chemicals into the body is no easy matter — the company must make sure the chemicals don’t leak from the balloon once they generate the heat.

Also, the mechanisms of CVI are still largely unknown, experts say.

“The pathophysiology of chronic venous insufficiency is not well understood,” according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine. “There have been few randomized comparative trials; available data are limited by the previous lack of both disease classification and measures of clinical severity”

Doctors may not even know what to target, the report says.

“In addition, quantitative methods are lacking to measure reflux or obstruction at individual valve stations and vein segments in order to selectively target the correction of these abnormalities,” the article said.

XO Thermix hopes to start raising angel money in two to three months, Selzer said.

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