Health care technology is a complex field, but KU Medical Center’s Lisa Stehno-Bittel has learned not to overlook what is small or simple.
Stehno-Bittel, professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation science and one of the world’s leading diabetes researchers, focuses on islets, cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. While working on islet transplant experiments, her lab manager, Janette Williams, pointed out something — something simple they hadn’t noticed before.
Smaller islets behaved differently than larger islets. The small islets were more robust and produced more insulin than larger islets. And when they transplanted only small islets into diabetic rats, the rats were cured. If they transplanted only large islets, the rats were never cured.
But this breakthrough presented another problem — how to reengineer the large islets to make them function like small ones. They couldn’t just throw away healthy tissue. They investigated complex solutions for five years, until Karthik Ramachandran, then a KU bioengineering doctoral student, invented a simple answer.
Ramachandran made a “micromold,” a small plate of glass with microscopic divots.
He took the large islets down to their simple cells and loaded those into the micromold. The cells fell into the microscopic divots, found each other, combined, and grew three-dimensionally into cell clusters. The clusters became new small islets — and began producing insulin.
When the new lab-grown small islets were injected into diabetic rats, the rats were cured. The researchers named their new islet the “Kanslet.”
The micromold was the basis of Ramachandran’s doctoral dissertation, and after he and Stehno-Bittel presented their findings at a national islet meeting, scientists from a major pharmaceutical company approached them. They wanted to use their technique — and the micromold’s ability to grow almost any type of cell clusters — to screen new drugs.
After a few months, Stehno-Bittel and Ramachandran licensed their patents from KU and cofounded a new biotech company, Likarda LLC.
Likarda is now creating diabetes treatments for pets, providing technology to screen drugs for cancer cures, and — after only three years — is no longer a “startup company,” but a profitable and growing small business. As Stehno-Bittel says, “Simple can be successful.”