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Ultrasound May One Day Make the Drugs You Take More Effective. Here’s How

A startup is putting low-frequency sound waves to use with the aim of revolutionizing how drugs are delivered in the human body. Suono Bio is developing technology that uses ultrasound to push drugs directly into the human body’s cells or tissues, potentially making the drugs arrive at their intended destination more quickly and with greater effect.

Initially, the company is focusing on the gastrointestinal tract to help patients suffering from chronic ailments like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease. These patients typically get medications through a rectal enema, which injects fluid into the body via the rectum over several uncomfortable hours.

Suono Bio’s approach is to pair the liquid drug with low-frequency ultrasound that creates tiny bubbles to push the medication directly into the gastrointestinal tract’s tissue. Pre-clinical trials show this method can deliver up to 20-times more drug in only a minute, allowing for shorter, less frequent use of the enema.

Suono Bio still needs the Food and Drug Administration’s approval before it can start clinical trials. The company has made an initial filing to get started with the FDA in December, but that review can take months.

Dr. Carl Schoellhammer, chief operating officer for Suono Bio, is confident about his company’s technology. “There are no companies applying low-frequency ultrasound locally for drug delivery the way we do,” he told Fortune.

Ultrasound can be used to help with the delivery of medication at varying frequencies. Some companies, like Trust Bio-Sonics and OxSonics Therapeutics, use the sonic waves to target and burst tiny bubbles within the body containing drugs. This technique can potentially be used in chemotherapy, for example, to target cancer solely where it is present.

Suono Bio, however, uses low-frequency ultrasound to propel the drug. It’s another type of targeted delivery, but the different variation of sound waves push the drug forward, as opposed to bursting a bubble containing the medication.

“The ultrasound essentially imparts a physical force,” Schoellhammer said. “It propels the drug directly into the tissue that it’s applied to.”

Dr. Nathan McDannold, a researcher in the radiology department at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital and research director at Harvard University’s Focused Ultrasound Laboratory, told Fortune that ultrasound drug delivery has been researched for quite some time, and “we’re just now starting to see more and more clinical applications of it.”

“I think [Suono Bio’s] approach is pretty novel,” said McDannold. “If they can show that they can do it safely I think that they will succeed in enhancing drugs into the GI tract.”

Making sure the device can easily control drug delivery could be a challenge, however, said McDannold. “That’s been a big issue with ultrasonic therapies,” he said. “Since it is a noninvasive effect, where you’re not visualizing what’s happening, it can be difficult to have a repeatable and reliable therapy.”

If Suono Bio can overcome these challenges, treating gastrointestinal diseases has great business potential. The market share for IBS constipation-related drugs alone will exceed $1 billion by 2020, according to the Decision Resources Group. Meanwhile, the market for drugs that combat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—which encompasses ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease—will reach $7.6 billion by 2023, according to Visiongain.

Suono Bio is already looking beyond gastrointestinal diseases as well. In addition to drugs, the technology has the potential to deliver proteins, DNA, or other such molecules directly into targeted tissues or cells elsewhere in the body.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company was founded in the lab of Dr. Robert Langer, an MIT professor who had already been working on using ultrasound to deliver drugs through the skin—a tough barrier to break through.

When Langer and Schoellhammer teamed up with Dr. Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, they thought to approach the GI tract—which has a much smaller barrier—to come up with Suono Bio’s founding technology.

With an investment by Amy Schulman, a managing partner of the LS Polaris Innovation Fund, Suono Bio was born.

“One of the great geniuses of Dr. Langer’s lab, and of people like Carl and Gio who come out of that lab, is to take solutions to biological or medical problems, and apply a kind of engineering mindset,” Schulman told Fortune.

Ultrasound typically requires a huge device with long power cables, but since its founding 18 months ago, Suono Bio has reduced the size of its device to smaller than a shoebox. Making it small enough to be hand held was the company’s greatest challenge, says Schoellhammer, but they still have further to go: Suono Bio hopes to further shrink the technology, make its power more efficient, and maybe—one day—create a disposable version.

All of this is far down the road, however. Even if Suono Bio is successful in getting its device to market, physicians would still need to become comfortable with the technology well before patients can self-administer the drugs at home.

The young startup has gotten this far with just over $1.5 million in funding from MIT’s offshoot venture capital firm The Engine, Medical Technology Venture Partners, the LS Polaris Innovation Fund, and Fujifilm. While Fujifilm may be best known for its photography products, it has a $23 billion business with a large portion in healthcare, regenerative medicine, biologics, and more, said Lisa Ricciardi, CEO of Suono Bio.

Partners like Fujifilm provide great opportunities for Suono Bio, said Ricciardi. The relationship has allowed Suono Bio to dive into the technology, working towards a smaller product and potentially invent more non-invasive systems.

“I think it shows the potential synergy they see across their businesses,” said Schoellhammer. “They’re interested in life science in general, and we’re just really excited to be working with that group.”