UNC Professor Creates Birth Control Alternative

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Dr. Rahima Benhabbour hopes 3D printing technology will generate a breakthrough in women’s health

By Shellie Edge  |  Photography by Sarah Daniels/Innovate Carolina

Dr. Rahima Benhabbour’s roots in advocacy for women’s health issues run deep. As an assistant professor in the UNC/N.C. State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering and an adjunct professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, her research interest is drug delivery devices for disease prevention and treatment.

As fate would have it, watching a TED talk featuring Joseph DeSimone, CEO of global 3D-printing company Carbon, was the inspiration she needed to jump-start her innovative idea. As Rahima watched Joseph, the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor
of Chemistry at UNC, demonstrate his 3D printer on stage, her mind quickly turned. She began to wonder how she could apply 3D-printing technology to intravaginal rings (IVR).

AnelleO 3D-printed IVR design
The top ring is an example of an AnelleO 3D-printed IVR design, and the bottom one is a silicone injection molded ring.

As she watched the 3D printer at work, Rahima saw how it could quickly print intricate features, and she asked herself, “What if we could add those intricate features to an IVR, customizing them for drug delivery?” And with that, her startup, AnelleO, was born. “Anello” means “ring” in Italian, and “elle” is “her” in French. The letter “O” represents the ring the company makes. Combined, it means, “a ring for her.”

Currently, women seeking IVRs are given a one-size-fits-all product. By creating an alternative that is not only efficient in drug delivery but also can be customized to women and their individual needs, Rahima is making more personalized and effective care a reality.

“Unlike traditional technology, 3D printing gives us the ability and engineering to play around with the design and properties of a product,” she says. “We can engineer parts that would not have been possible before. The main goal of developing this 3D technology is to have the ability to change the ways in which women’s products are manufactured and designed. And the applications for the technology are endless – including [the] prevention of HIV, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies.”

Since launching in 2016, her team at AnelleO continues to grow and develop their product, AnelleO PRO, a once-a-month, progesterone-releasing ring specialized for infertility and assisted reproductive technology. Current products approved for progesterone supplementation are limited to messy and unpleasant vaginal gels or inserts and painful intramuscular injections that have to be administered daily. Designed to safely and steadily release progesterone over an extended duration, AnelleO PRO could potentially replace current therapies and impact millions of women. Still in the early stages of development, AnelleO just received National Institutes of Health funding through a Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer grant. Rahima says the largest markets they will target include the United States, Japan and the European Union.

When working on AnelleO, Rahima faced hurdles shared by other Carolina faculty who launch startups, as she tried to balance teaching and research responsibilities. “As a faculty member, this would not have been a dream come true for me without massive support from UNC,” she says. “I learned how to grow a company and be an academic professor at the same time. The mentality of promoting faculty entrepreneurship is unique to UNC.”

The UNC Office of Technology Commercialization team – part of the Innovate Carolina initiative – assisted with guidance on patents and licensing while helping Rahima navigate conflicts of interest. Rahima also participated in the annual Chancellor’s Faculty Entrepreneurship Workshop, an invite-only event for faculty members.

Dr. Rahima Benhabbour, an adjunct professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy
Dr. Rahima Benhabbour, an adjunct professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, in her lab.

“As scientists, we like to have the ability to … get our brains to the point of thinking through new things,” she says. “Because of the workshop, I’m now implementing design thinking in my lab. I used to have a journal club meeting with my lab, selecting two people to pick a news article or journal publication. They [would] present those along with what the labs did well and what they could have done better. After the workshop, we now focus on design thinking. We ideate on new ideas and new technologies.”

Separate from her AnelleO startup team, the students, postdocs and specialists in her research lab continue to tackle the other health issues of women, while applying the design thinking principles Rahima brought back from the workshop. “My students are working on various technologies with many of them focusing on women’s health,” she says. “[This includes] multipurpose technologies for prevention of STIs and unintended pregnancy, and treatment of vulvodynia, infertility and osteoporosis.”

As she’s grown AnelleO, Rahima is also thankful for the many opportunities presented to collabore with different schools and departments across campus.

“None of the ongoing projects I have in my lab are in a silo,” Rahima says. “Everything is collaborative. One of the most attractive things about UNC is to have world-class experts in the field [with whom we can] collaborate. The sky is the limit. Go and innovate. Go and see how far you can get. Taking advantage of the expertise around me is what helped launch AnelleO, allowing for the creation of a product that could make a difference in the future.”

Currently, AnelleO is expanding the management team and looking to have a physical location at the UNC KickStart Accelerator. Rahima says they have also developed a new pharma partnership and hope to develop more as they continue on.

“I’m from North Africa,” Rahima says. “I’m a woman. The thought of helping women – some who don’t have a way of protecting themselves or controlling their lives – that’s my ultimate passion. It’s a dream for me to give back.”

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