By GREGORY ZELLER //
Katarzyna Sawicka has authority issues. Not that you can really blame her.
Ever since she was an undergrad at Stony Brook University, she was told her cutting-edge ideas about chemistry wouldn’t fly, that the laws governing chemistry and physics were immutable. The “authorities” – a word she uses often in place of “experts” and “the guys signing the checks” – just didn’t think she had the goods.
But Sawicka was pretty sure she did. And now, the three-time SBU grad (BS engineering chemistry, ’04; MS chemistry, ’05; Ph.D. biomedical engineering, ’14) is sitting on a breakthrough likely to reset medical science as we know it.
That’s no exaggeration. By shattering previous doctrine on the delivery of medicines to the human body, Sawicka may very well reshape treatment protocols for millions of patients around the globe – and make life a little easier for folks with trypanophobia, the fear of needles.
Her revelation: a stick-on patch, akin to the nicotine systems that have helped smokers kick the habit for decades, that can deliver all sorts of medications directly through the skin, no needles necessary. This was previously thought impossible because of the 500 Dalton Rule, a longstanding and now-endangered theory stipulating that a compound’s molecular weight must be under 500 Daltons to facilitate absorption through the skin.
(A Dalton is the standard unit measuring mass on an atomic scale. You don’t need to know more here.)
Sawicka’s path to discrediting Dalton began when she was that overachieving undergrad, “throwing proteins into high electrical fields.” Proteins, she noted, rely heavily on structure, and “the authorities assumed the electrical fields would unfold and denature the proteins.”
But the proteins survived her electrical experiments, Sawicka noted, a shocking discovery that showed she could transmit proteins on fibers approximately 1000th the width of a human hair. But what to do with this breakthrough? Even Sawicka wasn’t sure. “I had this really cool material,” she said, “and no idea what it was good for.”
Fast forward two years: Sawicka, armed with that master’s in chemistry, was an intern at Apogee Technology, a Massachusetts company that at the time had an office in Great River. Apogee was working to bring new micro-needle technology to market, and Sawicka wondered what would happen if she combined their micro-needles with her “really cool material.”
Her plan involved poly-vinylpyrrolidone, a polymer that can pull water out of the skin. When moisture is returned, the outer layer of the skin swells, allowing larger-than-usual molecules to enter, essentially drowning the 500 Dalton Rule. Combined with the micro-needles, Sawicka’s experiments produced only middling results, the scientist noted. But it was enough to pique Apogee’s interest, and the company continued funding her experiments after her internship ended. At which point Sawicka decided to ditch the micro-needles and turn the PVP itself into the delivery system.
“It wasn’t supposed to work, according to the authorities,” she noted, and true to form, Apogee eventually pulled out. But several years and $200,000 of personal investment and state and federal grants later, Sawicka managed to successfully combine the PVP with vaccine solutions to create nanofibers that could be formed into dense mats – the Band-Aid-like patches that would become her breakthrough product, ImmunoMatrix.
“Breakthrough,” of course, being a mild understatement. ImmunoMatrix has proved capable of delivering compounds weighing as much as 125,000 Daltons, shattering the previous ceiling of 500.
Sawicka, nonetheless, remains modest about her discovery. To a fault, maybe. While she doesn’t deny the potential healthcare applications (starting with the 40 percent of the global population suffering from some form of allergy, many of whom must suffer upwards of 40 anti-allergy injections over five years of treatments), she freely admits to being a novice entrepreneur who’s unsure if her product will succeed.
“I hope so,” Sawicka said.
Stony Brook U certainly sees the potential, listing Sawicka as the chief inventor on the university-held ImmunoMatrix patent. “Bringing the concept of infectious disease immunization without the use of needles to this stage is a great advancement to our field,” said University President Samuel Stanley, himself an acclaimed immunologist. “We’re excited to see the outcome of the next phase of Kasia’s work.”
Also keen on ImmunoMatrix’s potential is Invent Now, the national creation-centric organization housing the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In 2014, Sawicka and her team won first prize in the graduate division of the national Collegiate Inventors Competition, besting 14 finalist teams from 13 U.S. colleges and universities.
Hannah Paulin, Invent Now’s vice president of business development, called ImmunoMatrix “a symbol of the innovative ideas so many higher-education students are developing across our country.”
“[Sawicka] never gave up on the potential of her ideas and improved upon something that had been done the same way for hundreds of years,” Paulin said. “That’s innovation.”
Sawicka is a little uneasy with such accolades. She doesn’t deny that her invention could have global healthcare ramifications – lab tests have shown ImmunoMatrix to be effective for combating the flu, whooping cough and anthrax, and that it works with various antigens and macro molecules – but she’s less concerned with enjoying the fruits of her scientific labor than learning how to build a startup business.
“I’m looking for ways to bring it to market as soon as possible,” Sawicka noted. “But it’s a huge lesson, becoming an entrepreneur.”
She’s incorporated ImmunoMatrix and is currently seeking startup capital. Handing off the company to someone with more commercialization experience is not an option – “I’ve invested my entire career in this, and I’m not sure I even could step away” – meaning the woman who may well have reinvented the healthcare wheel is going back to school, in a sense.
“It’s definitely going to keep me up nights,” she said.
This week, the entrepreneur met Mildred Dresselhaus, the “queen of carbon fiber” and inventor of the synthetic Kevlar, who was touring the Stony Brook campus. The meeting, she noted, was as eye-opening as anything she ever discovered in the lab.
“Meeting Dresselhaus showed me that I know nothing,” Sawicka said. “At least, enough to know that I know very little.”