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Rutgers student creates agent to clear biological tissues

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A company students started has now been sold to more than 100 universities, and the founders are currently meeting with pharmaceutical companies to advance their product.

Visikol is a new brand of clearing agent that has been gaining attention for its ability to clear all kinds of biological tissues from plants to animals, said Tom Villani, the product’s creator.

Villani, now a Ph.D. student in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at Rutgers, was in a class called Botanical Microscopy when he thought up the idea of Visikol. The professor had cleared tissues for them to see, but the clearing agent used was the illegal chemical chloral hydrate, so the students were not allowed to clear any tissues. 

Villani, who is now Visikol’s chief science officer, thought perhaps he could create his own clearing agent. At the time, he was in the New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products program in Professor Jim Simon’s laboratory at Rutgers. 

Using a method called analog synthesis, Villani chose a compound close to chloral hydrate and tried to create a formula that worked. 

Simon provided the funding for the reagents, Villani said. Adolfina Koroch, a visiting scientist from the City University of New York, helped him with his first optimization, and it was the fifth formula that has worked since 2012. 

Villani filled out an Invention Disclosure Form and the Rutgers Office of Technology Commercialization started filing the patent. Though Visikol is still in the process of being patented, he owns the rights to produce and sell it exclusively with his company. 

Nick Crider, a researcher working in Simon’s Laboratory as part of the NUANPP, is currently the chief executive officer for Visikol.

Crider, who went to high school with Villani, knew the company would be successful when he set up a preorder and had 12 orders before the first batch was even made.

He said the company’s license agreement with Rutgers is such that the company pays a percentage of it’s sales to the University.

Michael Johnson, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Ph.D. student who works in product sustainability marketing at Johnson & Johnson, heard about the company through mutual contacts he shared with Villani.

At the time, Johnson had written a grant proposal to NASA about growing algae in space. 

Johnson, the chief marketing officer for Visikol, works the business end of the company. 

Harna Patel, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore, is the company’s media coordinator and photographer, also serving as an intern when necessary.

“I was very lucky I was placed in Simon’s lab and got to know Tom,” she said. “I’m very thankful he trusted me to work under him. It was, and still is, a great opportunity for me.” 

Villani said it was refreshing to see someone so young, ambitious and capable in the lab.

Most professors do not let students help out with corporate related products, so Villani credited Simon, professor in the Department of Plant Biology, with help in that department.

“It’s rare for a university, too, to be so supportive of a small company made up of students,” he said. 

Currently, Visikol is collaborating with the University of Maryland’s Department of Epidemiology and Toxicity, whose staff is interested in using the clearing agent to study the human brain and breast cancer.  

Brains have the hardest tissues to clear, Villani said. Sectioning fails since the neurons in the brain are long, so they end up getting cut.

Visikol can clear out brains better than another method called CLARITY, which was created by Professor Karl Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford University. CLARITY involves removing the lipids from the brain, which takes a long time, while with Visikol, the brain can be soaked in it.  

In relation to cancer, Villani said they could stain a protein related to cancer and clear the whole tissue to see where the cancer cells are. The stains are not removed, and every stain test they have done so far has worked. 

The plan now is to continue to do more research with Visikol and to search for academic collaborators while expanding into the medicinal fields, Villani said. “We are also meeting with major pharmaceuticals in the hopes they will use Visikol.” 

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