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Fralin Biomedical Research Institute spinoff Tiny Cargo Co. among Washington, DC Health Innovation QuickFire Challenge awardees

Tiny Cargo Co., a biotech startup founded by Rob Gourdie, professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, is among five companies to receive a Washington, DC Health Innovation QuickFire Challenge award. Spencer Marsh, a postdoctoral researcher in Gourdie’s laboratory, presented the pitch that awarded the company $50,000, the opportunity to reside at JLABS @ Washington, D.C. with access to a bench, workstation, and community for one year, and mentorship from experts at the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies.

Johnson & Johnson Innovation, together with Mayor Muriel Bowser and the district’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, working with the Washington DC Economic Partnership, launched the challenge in May aiming to help address health inequalities in underserved communities.

Tiny Cargo Co. produces nanosized drug delivery capsules, called exosomes, that can be used to courier delicate molecules throughout the body – like a “molecular text message,” said Gourdie, who is also director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Center for Vascular and Heart Research. During the pandemic, his laboratory’s research team – Marsh, Kevin Pridham, and Jane Jourdan – developed a new, scalable method to extract and purify exosomes harvested from unpasteurized cow’s milk.

“We have an ambitious vision for the future of drug delivery,” said Marsh, who is now Tiny Cargo Co.’s chief science officer. “With access to global leaders in commercialization, this QuickFire Challenge award catalyzes our ability to pursue the next phase of development on exosome technology and therapeutic peptide synthesis.”

Over the next year the research team will collaborate with Rachel Letteri, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Virginia, and will evaluate methods to load the exosomes with a new peptide drug candidate that aims to limit the spread of damage after a heart attack, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. In the previous study, the researchers injected the peptide directly into heart tissue. But now, with exosomes, they have an avenue to non-invasively treat the affected tissue by administering the drug orally while it is protected from the body’s immune and digestive processes.

Exosomes can also penetrate the blood-brain-barrier, introducing a new drug delivery method for targeting neurological diseases and brain cancer, according to Gourdie.

Gourdie and Marsh licensed the intellectual property to deliver heart medicine using exosomes through Virginia Tech’s LICENSE: Center for Technology Commercialization and The Tiny Cargo Co. was formed in 2020.

The other winners of the challenge are maternal mortality innovation companies, Mae and Mammha, and kidney and cardiovascular disease innovation companies, Vasculonics Inc, Paradox Immunotherapeutics.

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