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KeraNetics Works to Help Wounded Soldiers

By Jeremy Summers, NCBiotech Writer

Purified keratin by KeraNetics.

Photo courtesy of KeraNetics.

KeraNetics has made a name for itself during the past four years with a string of high-profile grants and contracts, including several with the Department of the Defense.

The Winston-Salem-based company specializes in converting purified keratin proteins, the key structural material of human nails and hair, into medical products. The market potential is great. But perhaps the most fascinating product goal is to treat soldiers injuries in battle.

Using biotech in treatment

The company’s Director of Product Research and Development Luke Burnett, Ph.D., is a Lt. Colonel in the North Carolina National Guard and is passionate about helping wounded soldiers.

That passion has led KeraNetics to look to keratin to improve the ability of medicines to treat injured soldiers, says Charles Johnson, the company’s managing director.

Innovations in medical treatments for injured soldiers have steadily increased survival rates with each war the nation has faced. During the Civil War, 50 percent of injured soldiers survived. In World War II that figure was 72 percent. In Vietnam, it was 79 percent. In the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the survival rate is at 93 percent.

While medicine has improved the survival rates for injured soldiers, “these wounded warriors are living with pretty horrific injuries,” said Johnson.

In modern warfare, explosions are responsible for the majority of injuries. Some of the more serious injuries are burns, broken bones and facial contusions.

KeraNetics says it has discovered an innovative method to improve the treatment of these injuries, using the versatile biomaterial found in keratin.

Two products lead clinical pipeline

The company is developing two lead products: KeraStat to treat thermal burns and KeraGenics to repair bone damage.

Johnson says KeraStat accelerates burn closure time and reduces burn surface area by controlling wound progression, something no other product on the market offers. These advantages, he says, help reduce the risk of death among soldiers who sustain a thermal burn.

The company says its other lead product, KeraGenics, can be used for both nerve and bone regeneration. What’s more, the same regenerative principles also make it a likely candidate for efficient drug delivery, Johnson says.

Each of these products is in clinical trials and scheduled to complete human testing within the next two years.

Johnson says the company has received recurring contracts from the Department of Defense because of the effectiveness of its products. “What the (Department of Defense) cares about is the reliability of a company, having results delivered on time and on budget,” says Johnson.

NCBiotech helped bootstrap KeraNetics

KeraNetics is a portfolio company of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which awarded the company a $150,000 Small Business Research Loan in 2010. Additionally, KeraNetics is participating in NCBiotech’s Industrial Fellowship Program, in which costs are shared for postdoc Erin Falco, Ph.D., to work two years as a scientist at the company and learn the ropes of industrial research.

The company was formed in 2008 as a spinout from Wake Forest University Health Sciences, with exclusive rights to commercialize some 20 university patents.

Johnson says the company is getting ready to build a manufacturing facility in Kannapolis, about 50 miles southwest of KeraNetics headquarters.

At this new facility, the company will continue to extract and purify the active ingredients in keratin for use in its products. It also plans to begin commercialization of its current portfolio of products while inventing new ones.