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A role for value-driven engineering in improving medical devices

The first company created by ABIA, says Douglas, is developing a noninvasive method of adjusting the implants that correct scoliosis in children.

As America’s medical device-makers seek to maintain their lead in an increasingly competitive global market, says Frank L. Douglas ’66, they might benefit from watching a small child use an iPad.

“We have two grandsons, 3 years old and a year old,” Douglas, the president and CEO of the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron (ABIA), said here in a talk Friday.

“The 3-year-old loves to play with the iPad. He knows just which icons to touch for great things to happen.”

Despite its sophistication, said Douglas, who earned a B.S. in chemistry from Lehigh, the iPad is simple to use. That concept can benefit medical technology. By making simple devices that have value and reduce costs, the U.S. can compete effectively with China, India, Brazil and other countries that spend a larger percentage of GDP on medical technology research.

“Even if the initial cost of a device is relatively high,” said Douglas, “it can cut costs if it is simple enough for a patient to use himself. And if you reduce complexity, compliance goes up.”

Simpler medical devices have already begun to enter the market, said, Douglas. An asthma inhaler equipped with GPS tells patients which environments are most likely to cause breathing problems. A portable EKG that does not require electricity is being used in India.

About 60 percent of the world’s new medical devices are invented in the U.S., Douglas said, but investors expect that share to fall as other nations devote more resources to the field.

A less invasive fix for children with spinal curvature

ABIA is a collaboration of the Akron Children’s Hospital, the Akron General Health System, Northeast Ohio Medical University, Summa Health System, the University of Akron and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It was founded in 2008 to promote the development and commercialization of “patient-centered” medical innovations.

Last June, under Douglas’s leadership, ABIA issued a white paper titled “Value-driven Engineering for U.S. Global Competitiveness” that advocated the creation of public-private collaborations and a renewed commitment to innovation in the face of rising domestic healthcare costs and the struggling American economy.

“We cannot sacrifice the nation’s defining leadership in biomedical innovation as we struggle to right a listing economic vessel,” the report said.

ABIA has fielded more than 150 proposals in the last two years and funded two dozen. Three months ago, ABIA spun off its first company, APTO Orthopaedics, which is developing a noninvasive technique to adjust the implants that correct scoliosis in children. The technique would eliminate the need for the surgeries that children with scoliosis require to lengthen their implants as they grow.

On April 22, 23 and 24, ABIA is hosting a two-day “Value-driven Engineering National Conference in Akron that will discuss the maximization of value for patients and healthcare systems, the complexity of medical devices, the agencies and regulations that govern innovation, and the education of the next generation of engineers working in the field. The event is sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation.

Douglas, who holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. from Cornell University, is University Professor in the College of Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Akron. He has also served as professor of practice in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he founded the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation.

His Lehigh talk was sponsored by the office of research and graduate studies.


Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, April 06, 2012

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