Graduate Student Spotlight: Doctoral candidate Blaszkiewicz becomes CEO of biotech startup

Neuropathy research leads to cutting-edge medical device development

Neuropathy (or the dying-back of nerve fibers) affects roughly 20 million people in the United States. Unfortunately, most people do not realize they have the disease until they experience symptoms such as pain, numbness and loss of limb control.

In many cases, amputation can result.

Current methods to diagnose neuropathy are painful or inaccurate and often are performed too late, thereby limiting options for treatment.

Enter Magdalena Blaszkiewicz, a University of Maine doctoral candidate, and Kristy Townsend, assistant professor of neurobiology.

They formed Neuright, a biotech spinoff company, to create and commercialize a medical device to more sensitively diagnose neuropathy in its earlier stages.

The company is partnered with UMaine faculty including lead bioengineer Rosemary Smith, neuroscientist Len Kass, and electrical/computer engineers Nuri Emanetoglu and Ali Abedi.

CEO Blaszkiewicz and chief science officer Townsend were awarded funding for Neuright through the UMS Research Reinvestment Funds accelerator program, Maine Innovation, Research and Technology Accelerator (MIRTA). The project is an extension of Blaskiewicz’s dissertation in which she examines neuropathy of subcutaneous adipose tissue (fat under the skin). Townsend is her faculty mentor.

“My dissertation focuses on brain-adipose communication and how it relates to maintaining metabolic homeostasis, as such I study the interactions of the adipose organ with peripheral nerves, their products, and growth factors,” says Blaszkiewicz.

InFATuated with fat

Adipose tissue – or fat – communicates the needs of the body to the brain. So, when fat becomes dysfunctional, the whole system suffers.

Blaszkiewicz finds this fascinating. “I wanted to study fat. Why? Well, it’s delicious,” she jokes.

But she also has serious reasons for her interest in this versatile tissue. Fat changes shape, size and its secretions — all depending on what the body needs. It adapts to the environment to suit multiple purposes.

Through research in Townsend’s lab, they have found that in addition to adipose tissue being dynamic in terms of fat and immune cells, fat is also dynamic in terms of nerves as well. Building upon the knowledge of the direct link between adipose tissue and neuropathy, Neuright continues its research and development phase to create a new standard of care in neuropathy diagnosis.

Early neuropathy diagnosis has many beneficial impacts

Neuright’s product will be a small medical device that is painless and easy to use. In their offices, primary care providers will be able to monitor patients for neuropathy. It won’t be necessary to send them to a specialist for a painful, expensive procedure.

At-risk populations for neuropathy include people receiving chemotherapy, aging patients, and those who are pre-diabetic or have a family history of diabetes. Patients could be monitored for the disease with a routine test during annual physical exams.

Diagnosing the disease sooner will allow people with neuropathy to make lifestyle changes, such as exercise, to slow its progression. This could save people from losing a limb, pain and discomfort, and the expense and side-effects of pain medication.

Interdisciplinary work yields research success

Blaszkiewicz is grateful for the support of the UMaine research community. She wishes more people knew about the incredible ongoing interdisciplinary research.

“I’ve been amazed by the undergraduates and their ability to dedicate time to research. It blows me away,” says Blaszkiewicz. “We also have graduate students who are willing to work with undergrads – it’s wonderful for everybody.”

Blaszkiewicz is on schedule to defend her dissertation in March and graduate in May. She’ll then focus on the success of the new company. Neuright is a participant in the 2019 Top Gun program.

Media Contact: Christel Peters, 207.581.3571