Skin disorders attack one of the most visible signs of our health. Take vitiligo, which causes skin to lose its color and form irregular white spots all over the body. MoMelan Technologies, a secretive startup in Cambridge, MA, is fighting back against such conditions with a device that could literally expand the impact of skin grafts.
MoMelan, whose technology was invented in the lab of company co-founder and all-star Harvard dermatologist R. Rox Anderson, quietly closed $1.08 million in convertible debt financing in March to advance development of its device used to expand pieces of skin for grafting procedures, said Sameer Sabir, president, vice president of engineering, and co-founder of the startup. Its backers, he says, include BioVentures Investors, LaunchCapital, and Mass Medical Angels, all of which operate in the Boston area, as well as individuals.
Anderson and Sabir are keeping a lid on exactly how their device works. Yet the founders said it would be used to expand a piece of skin by up to 100 times its original size to cover an area on the body that is larger than the the graft could normally cloak. The device was initially developed at Massachusetts General Hospital in the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, of which Anderson is director, for people with vitiligo. Yet the firm’s founders say the device also has the potential to be used for patients with scars and other skin conditions for which skin grafts are treatment options.
“The approach is simple, straightforward, and novel,” Anderson says. “Whenever you want to remove or replace [skin] this would be useful, but the primary target is for people with vitiligo because we really don’t have great medicines for them.”
Vitiligo is a worldwide health problem, Anderson says. Anywhere from half a percent to two percent of people of all races are believed to have the disease, but it’s most evident in people of color because of the contrast between the normal hue of their skin and the pale patches it causes. The disease robs the body of its ability to normally produce pigment called melanin that colors skin, eyes, and hair. While the pigment-free areas of the skin are open to sun damage, they also cause people with the illness to worry about their appearance. (A notable victim of the disease was the late pop music icon Michael Jackson.)
MoMelan’s device could boost the use of skin grafts to treat vitiligo. According to the American Vitiligo Research Foundation, skin grafts are used only to cover small areas of lost pigment because of limited availability of skin tissue from patients and donors. More common treatments, according to the Clearwater, FL-based foundation, include laser therapy and corticosteroids that help restore pigment production. Anderson, an expert in laser treatments for skin, said that those existing treatments aren’t effective in more than half of patients with the disease. He envisions his startup’s device will be used in addition to other therapies for the illness.
MoMelan’s device has not been tested in human trials yet, meaning it’s a long way from everyday clinical use. However, it bodes well that its inventor is Anderson. A leading light in the field of dermatology, Anderson has helped develop laser treatments for removing hair, tattoos, and vascular lesions without leaving scars. He’s also a co-founder of numerous life sciences startups, including Follica, a developer of hair loss treatments based in Mendham, NJ, and Seventh Sense Biosystems, a Cambridge-based firm focused on diagnostic devices worn on the skin.
“Rox is the inventor and creative genius behind this,” Sabir said.
Sabir, 31, said he learned of Anderson’s research of vitiligo treatments during a course he took from Anderson as a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Enterprise Program in spring 2008. He took the next step of co-founding MoMelan with his teacher in June 2009.
Clearly, MoMelan’s journey has just begun. Sabir, a Brit who worked in life sciences investment banking and consulting in Europe before the Harvard-MIT program, is leading the startup’s small staff from office space donated by one of his investors, BioVentures, in Kendall Square. The startup’s main focus now is on engineering prototypes of its skin-expanding devices, which can later be tested in clinical trials.
A key technical challenge, Sabir said, is to engineer the device to be highly automated. That could reduce the time and cost of the procedures in which the device is used. Some skin grafts can take hours to perform, he said, and a big goal for the firm is to greatly reduce that duration.
“I want this to be quite simple,” Anderson said. “Ideally, this is something where you can walk into a doctor’s office and in a short period of time get a treatment that is pretty reliable for re-pigmenting vitiligo.”
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