One could say St. Louis innovator Tom Cohen is simply writing another chapter in his family’s legacy of St. Louis entrepreneurship.
In 1903, Cohen’s great-great grandfather Morris founded the popular Central Hardware chain of St. Louis stores, famous for its team of “orange-coated experts” willing to guide customers to the right home improvement needs. His uncle James was CEO of the chain, which grew to nearly 40 stores in six states at its peak.
While his ancestors specialized in offering customers “everything from scoop to nuts”, Tom Cohen’s mission is a bit more complex: his company is working to take the guesswork out of prescribing antibiotics.
When Cohen makes a pitch for his company, Nanopore Diagnostics, he comes armed with a prediction, a statistic, and a personal anecdote.
The prediction is frightening. “A study that was published earlier this year (by the World Health Organization ) said unless drastic steps are taken in the way antibiotics are dispensed, virtually all bacteria will become resistant to all known treatments in about 15 years. That’s pretty scary.”
Equally frightening is the estimate that each year the misuse of antibiotics costs the US healthcare industry $35 billion dollars in avoidable costs.
The personal anecdote, obviously, hits Cohen closest to home. “About five years ago, I developed an earache, just before I needed to fly back home to St. Louis from Baltimore, where I was living at the time. Suspecting an ear infection, I bullied my doctor, over the phone, into giving me an antibiotic. I developed a serious complication that eventually led to my developing ulcerative colitis. In addition to the illness, insurance companies spent more than $50,000 on me just because of that one misuse.”
Health authorities have long warned that antibiotics should only be used when they’re genuinely needed.
But, notes Cohen, “currently physicians are basing their decisions on whether to dispense antibiotics solely on a patient’s symptoms. There’s really no other basis for making those decisions. That leads to the misuse of antibiotics. A lot of times they’re giving out an antibiotic, when the cause of those symptoms is viral.”
“At the same time,” he says, “you have patients who are going to the hospital with potentially life-threatening infections, who need to get the best possible antibiotic as soon as possible. But it takes days for a physician to figure out exactly what that infection is for those patients.”
When you or I walk into a doctor’s office with a chest, ear or sinus infection, the physician, based on our symptoms, makes the decision on whether an antibiotic is necessary. If so, he’ll prescribe an antibiotic and if we don’t respond a few days later, he’ll order testing or change the antibiotic.
In a hospital setting, where the patient is sicker, doctors will take a sample immediately and then put the patient on an antibiotic. But says Cohen, “the current test takes about two days to get results. Our test doesn’t require that two day wait. With our technology, we can detect bacteria within twenty minutes of getting the patient sample.”
Hence, Nanopore is taking the guesswork out of the prescription and administration of antibiotics.
Nanopore scored a win this year when it was named the winner of the 2013 Olin Cup business plan competition and was offered a $50,000 investment from Washington University in St. Louis. Nanopore was one of two companies to win a $2,500 award from the BioSTL organization in 2013, as well as a $50,000 grant from the bio-based incubator BioGenerator . On May 21, Nanopore was named as one of 20 startups to receive $50,000 from the local startup support non-profit Arch Grants.
“Next up for us,” says Cohen, “is to put our heads down and get to work in the lab. It took us a year and a half to get the kind of momentum and the money that we could use for lab space and equipment…now we’ve got it.”
Cohen says it will be four to six years before the technology can be brought to market, a phenomenon that he says can lead to some frustration when it comes to securing funding from organizations and investors who want to see a quicker turnaround. One altruistic payoff, says Cohen, is that the Nanospore has the potential to solve a world health crisis.
“Misuse of antibiotics has a number of drastic effects, says Cohen. “It’s bad for the patient, obviously, to take an antibiotic you don’t need, or if you don’t get the best antibiotic. Antibiotic resistance itself is a global health problem. And the figures on cost are alarming.”