As biomedical engineers, our goals are to improve human health and to find innovative solutions to persistent patient needs. On this page you’ll meet three of our biomedical engineering alumni whose work as Ph.D. students led to discoveries that will change health care for the better.
Erik Tucker, Ph.D. 2009
President & CEO, Aronora, Inc.
Erik Tucker’s search for the holy grail began in graduate school, working in an OHSU biomedical engineering lab on the problem of how to safely break up blood clots. Now, as the chief executive of OHSU startup Aronora, Inc., he’s closer and closer to sharing his discovery with the world.
Blood clots cause heart attack, stroke and lung blockages that can be fatal. However, existing therapies come with a serious side effect: increased risk of severe bleeding.
Tucker and OHSU professor Andras Gruber discovered a way to target certain coagulation proteins in the blood, dissolving blood clots without increasing the risk of dangerous bleeding. They founded Aronora as a way to bring their academic lab discoveries to patients in need.
“We're working on what's considered the holy grail of anti-thrombotic therapy,” Tucker said. “This is a new generation of blood thinners and clot busters that don’t increase the risk of bleeding. We can save lives with these new drugs.”
The eight-person Portland-based company now has five medicines in various stages of development. Three are in Phase 2 clinical trials and two are in pre-clinical studies.
Tucker, who was named a 2022 Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, holds more than 90 U.S. and international patents. After graduating in 2001 with a degree in biochemistry from the University of Oregon, he came to OHSU in 2004 with the goal of helping people protect their health. He chose biomedical engineering as the best way to do that.
“Biomedical engineering has a strong focus on turning scientific discoveries into useful drugs and devices,” he said.
Connor Barth, Ph.D. 2018
Co-founder & CEO, Trace Biosciences
Connor Barth chose OHSU for his Ph.D. because he was intrigued by the biomedical engineering department’s work using fluorescent dyes to light up nerves during surgery. Little did he know he would later co-found a company to bring that technology to operating rooms.
The need is real; surgeons who can better see delicate nerves are able to avoid them, reducing the chance of injury.
“I never wanted to just be a scientist, discovering new things for discovery’s sake. I wanted to help people,” he said. “I was drawn to the work in Summer Gibbs’ lab because it had a strong translational focus. It’s meant for patients.”
Gibbs served as Barth’s faculty mentor during his studies. Barth, Gibbs and postdoctoral fellow Lei Wang (now a research assistant professor), co-founded Trace Biosciences in 2019 when the fluorescent dyes were ready to move from the Gibbs Lab to the newly formed OHSU startup for further development and commercialization.
Since then, Trace Biosciences, under Barth's direction, has secured millions of dollars in grants and investments to bring the technology into the operating room.
Roughly 25 million patients worldwide each year have nerve damage from surgery, causing pain, loss of function and expensive follow-up care.
Trace Biosciences is now a seven-person company, with two products under development and plans to begin clinical trials in 2024.
Worapol Ngamcherdtrakul, Ph.D. 2015
Principal Scientist/COO, PDX Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Worapol Ngamcherdtrakul believes scientists and business executives have more in common than you might think.
“Both are problem solvers. New problems and tasks are coming your way all the time, and you rarely stick to one routine. You have to analyze available information or data, and strategize next steps accordingly,” he said. “That’s what I like about being a scientist and it’s a common element in being an entrepreneur.”
Ngamcherdtrakul, who earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from OHSU in 2015, serves as principal scientist and chief operating officer at PDX Pharmaceuticals. The company was founded in 2010 by OHSU faculty member Wassana Yantasee. Ngamcherdtrakul was so intrigued by Yantasee’s work in nanomedicine that he came to Oregon all the way from Thailand to study in her lab.
His doctoral research was instrumental in developing a tiny particle made of silica that can deliver a molecule known as siRNA, or small interfering RNA, to breast tumors. It’s an effective treatment for cancer, but degrades quickly in the bloodstream. The company’s nanoparticle delivery system solves that problem.
Today, at PDX Pharmaceuticals, he continues to work on that system as a way to deliver other drugs, vaccines and immunotherapies to treat multiple types of cancer and infectious diseases. The startup has raised more than $13 million in financing and has six lead drug candidates in the pipeline. Two are nearly ready for clinical trials.
“Working on the very important problem of bettering human health is quite inspiring, and that’s what motivated me to do what I’m doing,” he said.
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