Where Ideas grow

Fetalix winner of EIT-Jumpstarter 2020

The Fetalix project, developed by i3S researchers, was the winner of the European Institute of Technology’s innovation support program “EIT Jumpstarter 2020” in the Health category. Participation in this contest of business ideas gave rise to a new Portuguese startup born at i3S whose goal is to develop an injectable biomaterial to regenerate the intervertebral disc and treat low back pain.

This European pre-accelerator program was attended by 120 European teams, of which 36 were selected for the final, which took place at the end of November. The Portuguese team, made up of Joana Caldeira, Morena Fiordalisi, and Raquel Gonçalves (researchers from the “Microenvironments for New Therapies” group) and Hugo Prazeres (from the “Knowledge Transfer Office”), was recognized as one of the six best innovations in Europe in initial stage of development, having won first place in the area of Health and a prize of 10,000 euros.

The Fetalix project, explains Joana Caldeira, “represents a spin-off born from a research line of the Microenvironments for New Therapies group, led by Professor Mário Barbosa, who assumes a prominent position as a scientific consultant for the company”. Within Fetalix, “we developed the first regenerative solution inspired by a fetal biomaterial”, explains Joana Caldeira.

The objective, adds Raquel Gonçalves, “is to eliminate the need for invasive surgical procedures for patients with low back pain, at a stage when the degeneration of the intervertebral disc is not yet very advanced”. This biomaterial, adds the team, “has unique regenerative properties” and its production, the researchers assure us “is simple, safe, accessible and capable of being scalable”. As it is an injectable material, it can be used by veterinarians and orthopedic surgeons, which will greatly reduce the time of surgical intervention and the length of hospital stay.

Despite not being deadly, low back pain has great socioeconomic impact, constituting the main cause of disability in Portugal and the main responsible for the loss of years of useful life. This type of pain is often caused by degeneration of the intervertebral disc that occurs with aging. The existing treatment options include medications to control pain or very invasive surgeries, but in most cases, they do not offer long-term solutions.