Companies in UMass incubator research COVID-19 vaccines, testing

The Center for Advancing Point of Care Technologies is part of the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center operated by UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School in Worcester to help biotech and medical-device startups bridge the gap between idea and market. PHOTO COURTESY OF UMASS LOWELL
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LOWELL — Two startups in the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2) — a partnership between UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School — are working to develop possible COVID-19 vaccines and a faster testing method.

M2D2, a business incubator for biotechnology and medical device companies, includes 40 startups across the state and region. Versatope and Nuclease Probe Technologies — two companies in the incubator — have shifted their research to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Versatope, which has worked on developing a universal flu vaccine, is now designing possible vaccines for COVID-19. One approach involves creating antibodies to block the “spike” protein on the novel coronavirus that latches onto human cells. Another approach is based on the amino acid residues that come in contact with antibodies that could defend against the virus, according to a UMass Lowell news release.

The company seeks funding from the National Institutes of Health of support the first approach and a public-private partnership to support the second, the release states.

“Pandemics have been a threat throughout history, but this moved so much faster than most people had anticipated,” Versatope CEO Christopher Locher said in the news release.

Nuclease Probe Technologies, which develops simple tests to detect blood stream infections like sepsis, is working to create a faster COVID-19 testing method.

“Like everyone else, we’re concerned about the coronavirus and we consider this really important work in these times,” CEO James McNamara said in a news release.

The researchers are considered essential per Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidelines, and continue to work from M2D2’s Lowell location. Measures have been taken to limit the number of those in the labs at once, according to Steven Tello, who is a member of M2D2’s leadership team and UMass Lowell’s vice provost of graduate, online and professional studies.

Tello helped launch M2D2 in 2008. The incubator was established through a $7.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

M2D2 is a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Research, Innovation and Ventures (DRIVe) network, run by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to respond to critical public-health emergencies.

The incubator also houses the Center for Advancing Point of Care Technologies (CAPCaT), which assists those developing technology and products for patients with heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders.

Startups in the incubator have “access to a network of resources,” Tello said in a phone interview. In addition, “our students have the opportunity to work closely with cutting-edge companies on cutting-edge innovations,” he added later.

“There’s a lot of career-building activity that can go in here for the students,” he said.

“People are laser-focused right now and brainstorming hard about how their slice of the health-care or biomedical enterprise could be used to address this very acute crisis that we’re in. It’s amazing how people have come together,” M2D2 Co-director Nathaniel Hafer said in a news release. Hafer is also an assistant professor of molecular medicine at UMass Medical School in Worcester.