An entrepreneur’s vision to help others see
In college, Katelyn Swindle-Reilly planned to use her engineering skills to save the environment. But as she furthered her education and began her professional career, she uncovered a passion for curing diseases and improving the lives of affected patients.
Since joining Ohio State in 2016, Swindle-Reilly’s research has focused on designing polymeric biomaterials for soft tissue repair and drug delivery with focused applications in ophthalmology and wound healing.
Ultimately, she hopes to develop new treatments to help patients struggling with vision loss.
“The ocular drug delivery space is a small, untapped field,” explained Swindle-Reilly, who is an assistant professor of biomedical and chemical engineering. “There are not many people focusing in that area, but I see a lot of challenging problems that could use the help of scientists and engineers.”
One of those problems—age-related macular degeneration (AMD)— is the third leading cause of blindness and currently has no cure.
Damaging the retina and the back of the eye, AMD can cause permanent vision loss and inhibit reading, driving and other daily activities. One available treatment that helps patients with AMD maintain vision requires an expensive intravitreal injection directly into the eye up to 12 times per year for the rest of their lives.
After learning about the burden these injections cause for patients from Ohio State ophthalmologist Dr. Matthew Ohr, Swindle-Reilly developed an extended-release capsule that, while still injected into the eye, has the potential to reduce the timing of injections to once or twice a year.
“The research in my lab has shown that we can fine-tune our extended-release capsule to sustain drug release for at least six months to over one year,” she explained. “The ultimate goal is for people like my parents to see first steps of grandchildren, read a favorite book, do crossword puzzles or play a round of golf. This technology can improve their quality of life and help them live a fuller life in later years. My hope is that these drug delivery devices will also be able to be used for the other form of AMD and retinopathies, which currently have no cure.”
Her technology has been licensed by Vitranu, a startup focused on applying it to AMD treatments. Swindle-Reilly is chief technology officer for the company, which aims to begin clinical trials at the end of 2024, with expected FDA approval in 2027. Currently, the Vitranu team is working on manufacturing and conducting preclinical studies of the extended-release capsule.
“None of this would have happened had I not been at Ohio State,” she explained. “My research program has evolved because of the collaborators I have here and conversations with clinicians in ophthalmology, but also colleagues in optometry, veterinary medicine and other science and engineering disciplines.”
Swindle-Reilly was named The Ohio State University's 2022 Early Career Innovator of the Year in recognition of her achievements in promoting university intellectual property. She also received the College of Engineering’s 2022 Innovator Award and is one of three Ohio State faculty members featured in a video series presenting innovative discoveries from Ohio’s university entrepreneurs.
Many of Swindle-Reilly’s other research projects also focus on using polymeric biomaterials to treat eye diseases. She is developing an antioxidant-filled substitute for the vitreous humor—the clear gel that fills the inside of the eye and liquifies as people age—to prevent cataracts in the 95% of patients who develop one after having vitrectomies to treat problems with the retina or vitreous. She’s also creating new therapeutic approaches to mitigate oxidative damage and inflammation caused by aging and eye injuries, and to treat optic neuropathy.
Swindle-Reilly found the support needed to commercialize her discoveries early in her career thanks to the university’s REACH for Commercialization program, which helps guide Ohio State innovators through the process. She now has five U.S. patents and 18 U.S. patent applications, with associated worldwide patents and applications.
“I was looking at it as something I would do after tenure—many years down the line,” said Swindle-Reilly, who participated in the program in 2017. “But then I realized I have a lot of ideas right now. They told me how to submit invention disclosures and then it just took off from there.”
The dedicated educator is also driven to ensure students consider entrepreneurship as a possibility—something she wasn’t exposed to until after launching her career.
She infuses her classes with entrepreneurial-minded learning concepts and mentors the student researchers working in her lab in the patent application and intellectual property process. As a guest lecturer in a biomedical engineering professional development course, Swindle-Reilly leads students through the R&D process from initial idea through FDA approval. This summer she is also mentoring two undergraduate researchers as part of the Summer Experience for Entrepreneurial Development (SEED) program.
“I never thought I would have a patent or invent things,” Swindle-Reilly said. “It's really important to teach these skills and serve as a role model to show that there are other routes beyond the traditional one. Even if someone does go work for a well-established company, it's good to know some of these entrepreneurial skills. Creativity and innovation are being rewarded more than they used to be.”
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org