Arytha Biosciences has developed a tiny nanosponge that can soak up and neutralize bacterial infections by disguising itself as a red blood cell.  It works against a wide range of toxins, including those produced by MRSA and E. coli, as well as snake and spider bites. Arytha’s nanosponge also shows promise as a vaccine against the deadly poison created by antibiotic-resistant Staph aureus.

The idea took root when Liangfang Zhang, Ph.D., a professor at UC San Diego’s Center for Excellence in Nanomedicine and Engineering, began working on a drug delivery system using nanoparticles. Like other researchers in this field, Zhang had to find a way to protect his polymer nanoparticles from the immune system. So he borrowed a tactic from the body’s own red blood cells.

“Red blood cells have a pattern on the surface that says to immune cells, ‘We are your family members, don’t attack us,’” said Zhang. “Our technology takes advantage of that. It reproduces the red blood cell membrane and uses it as a piece of camouflage clothing.”

Once the nanosponges are fully loaded, they whisk toxins away to the liver for disposal. The nanosponges, which have a half-life of 40 hours, are designed to absorb any pore-forming toxin that attacks the cellular membrane. “The nanosponge is a universal de-toxin, and it’s totally safe,” said Zhang.  “The polymer will disintegrate into water and carbon dioxide.”

With funding from the National Science Foundation, and working with researchers at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center, Zhang has been testing his nanosponges on mice. When the animals were pre-innoculated with the nanosponges, 89 percent survived what would normally be a near-lethal dose of MRSA toxins. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 11,000 individuals in the U.S. die from MRSA and other staph infections each year.

Zhang and his colleagues at Arytha Biosciences also decided to look at the problem from the opposite direction – prevention instead of cure – which ultimately led them to a toxin vaccine. This time, the nanosponges were studded with the MRSA toxin, triggering the mice’s immune system. The sponges were able to neutralize the poison in tandem with the animal’s s own dendritic cells. The researchers found that their nanosponge vaccine was safe and more effective than toxoid vaccines made from heat-treated staph toxin.

Funding for the research came from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institute of Health. The Department of Defense also contributed a SBIR grant for Phase 1 & 2 testing.

Arytha Biosciences plans to remain a holding company. New companies under its umbrella will have their own management teams, according to Zhang, who recently became the first-ever UC San Diego recipient of the Allan P. Colburn Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers . Its inaugural spinoff, slated for 2014, will be Cellics Therapeutics. Cellics will focus on the application of Arytha’s red blood cell technology for the treatment of rare diseases. The company is now in talks with investment bankers and private investors.

“With early stage technology, you have to do a lot of incubating,” Zhang said. “We have done a lot of work on the nanosponge technology. Commercializing innovation doesn’t happen itself. You need to have good connections and find good people.”


Arytha Biosciences, LLC
11575 Sorrento Valley Road, San Diego, CA 92121
Tel: (949) 232-9641
Founded: 2012
Employees: 4

Huiqing (Winnie) Hu – CEO
Liangfang Zhang – Founder

Financing/Financial Milestones: Grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Subsequent financing from Department of Defense SBIR grant for Phase 1 & 2 testing.

Technology Innovators:

 zhang photo_resized

Liangfang Zhang, PhD

Professor, Center for Excellence in Nanomedicine and Engineering,

Department of Engineering and Moores Cancer Center.