Startup creates ‘artificial blood’ and receives funding from the Pentagon
Solution is tested to give an organ donated for transplant longer survival and to help victims of accidents
Founded by Brazilian investor Luis Claudio Garcia de Souza (formerly with Pactual and Rio Bravo), biotechnology startup VirTech developed a hemoglobin-based solution with blood-like oxygen carrying capacity that caught the attention of the Pentagon, the US Department of Defense. This division of the US government made a contribution of US$ 13 million that is now driving toward the clinical research phase of the project. The objective is to use the product to prevent hemorrhagic shock in trauma patients and to give better survival to organs donated for transplantation.
The Pentagon was interested in the possibility of the solution preventing hemorrhagic shock, a problem that affects military personnel in combat or civilians who suffer trauma, such as automobile accidents. In these cases, hemorrhagic shock is usually the main cause of death, as there is often no time for a transfusion. Research carried out so far shows that the solution, injected into the body as a temporary blood substitute, considerably increases the time available for the victim to arrive at a hospital for transfusion.
The fundraising with the Pentagon, which has already allocated US$ 4 million in the last two years and will apply the rest over the course of the project, was done with the help of Dallas Hack, an American military doctor who was in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and, after retiring from the military in 2015, decided to dedicate himself to biotechnology research.
Hack says that he witnessed, during the fighting, “incredible traumas that I had never seen in
medical school or in training – we lost a lot of people due to a lack of appropriate .technology. We haven’t done much to improve trauma care since the Vietnam War. That’s a sad thing in the US medical research system, which uses money for research into chronic diseases, but not trauma,” Hack said. “For the Pentagon, this project is priority number 1”, added the military doctor, who was in São Paulo last week, visiting PUC-Campinas and Unifesp for possible partnerships in clinical studies. He was also in Argentina.
Research has also shown that the solution – called OxyBridge – allows donated human organs for transplantation to have a longer survival time. It is believed that this time can double. Today, ice is used to keep the organ in good condition for surgery, but only for nine hours on average, and many organs intended for transplant are lost. This is a worldwide reality.
The idea of this project came from a personal experience of Souza. His wife died in 2012 after difficulties with a liver transplant. “My wife had hepatitis C. We had a successful transplant in the US, but the hepatitis virus was not eliminated and after a while another surgery was needed. We were in São Paulo, during the Christmas period, and we could not find a compatible organ”, said Souza. The investor started to study the subject and made donations to the University of Pittsburgh, a center of excellence for organ transplants in the world. There, he met the Brazilian doctor Paulo Fontes, who was researching a solution loaded with oxygen that resembles blood. Thus, VirTech, now based in Boston, was born.
Afterwards, Souza invested in other biotechnology projects and created a holding company, Securitas, which today has seven “healthtechs”, three of which are headquartered in the US and four in Argentina. “Despite the crisis, Argentina is a center of medical excellence. From there have come three Nobel Prize winners. It is also a way of encouraging research in Latin America,” said Souza, who prefers to be identified as a “company builder” rather than an investor, because he starts his business from scratch. In the financial area, he participated in the creation of several institutions such as Pactual, Rio Bravo, RB Capital, Capitalys and Credihome.
In the early days of those first ten years, the investment in the startup came from Souza’s own resources. In total, the holding company, Securitas, has now received US$ 21 million, including the US$ 13 million awarded by the Pentagon to VirTech. In the area of bioscience, it is common for individual investors to put money into projects with certain scientists over long periods, as happened with Souza and the Brazilian Paulo Fontes. When the research enters the clinical testing phase, the venture funds make their contributions. One of the best-known “venture builders” is Flagship Pioneering, which many years ago invested in the development of the messenger RNA platform of the pharmaceutical company Moderna, a molecule currently used in the vaccine against covid-19.
The expectation is that the solution used for transplants will be on the market between 2023 and 2024, according to Matias Vidal, president of Securitas. The application in cases of hemorrhagic shock requires a few more years of clinical research in humans. This work must be carried out in hospitals, whether in the US or Argentina, that are pre-accredited by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).