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Format: 04/23/2014
Format: 04/23/2014

News

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: 'Life sciences century' spurs new wave of med-tech companies in Western Pennsylvania

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

By Kim Leonard

Using his home tool kit, Edward S. Wright built a pump to help his granddaughter control severe leg swelling that stemmed from a circulatory problem. 

Thirty years later, Wright's daughter has developed a lighter, digital version of his idea. "And now, we're ready to go national and make the product available to more people," Carol Wright said.

With 11 employees and a small space in a North Fayette business park, Wright Therapy Products Inc. has minimal name recognition compared with Western Pennsylvania medical device giants such as Medrad and Philips Respironics. A growing number of other small companies in the region is perfecting or selling medical products ranging from better catheters to bone cutters and breathing devices.

"Strong academic centers like the Pittsburgh region do tend to show remarkable success in creating and drawing in new companies," said Wanda Moebius of the Advanced Medical Technology Association, or AdvaMed.

Most of the 6,000 medical device companies nationwide are in small towns and have fewer than 100 employees, the Washington-based trade group said. While the recession has slowed business startups and financing for now, Moebius said, "This is the life sciences century" and better, less-costly ways to treat an aging population will be crucial in coming years.

The state-financed Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse has worked with, or helped to fund, 300 fledgling companies in its eight-year history, CEO John Manzetti said. Nearly half — or 144 — have been focused on a new instrument or machine for a hospital setting, or something that a patient might use at home.

In many cases, the concepts come from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and other campuses. Leaders at the greenhouse, the region's primary funding and support source for medical startups, "troll the halls there, looking for light bulbs going off" then weigh whether the ideas are marketable, Manzetti said.

Pennsylvania's medical technology industry ranks seventh in size nationwide, with $5.49 billion in sales in 2006, according to an AdvaMed report.

Wright's compression therapy pump got its start not in a university laboratory, but at the D.T. Watson Children's Home in Sewickley. Edward Wright visited his granddaughter in 1980 as she was being treated for congenital lymphedema, and saw that the inflatable pump doctors were using controlled the size of her right leg but caused her foot to swell.

"There wasn't as much known about lymphedema then," Carol Wright said, adding that often, severely swollen limbs would be amputated. Lymphedema occurs in patients missing lymph nodes at birth or, most often, after nodes are removed during cancer surgery. At least 3 million people in the United States have the condition, which can be treated, but not cured.

Edward Wright made a pump with chambers that delivered varying degrees of pressure to a limb — more at the farthest point, less closer to the body. "Like squeezing a tube of toothpaste," Carol Wright said.

The pump worked so well, she said, that doctors at the Watson hospital referred other patients to her father. He formed a company in 1983 to sell his pumps across the region, and Carol Wright bought it in 1998.

Since then, she's downsized her late father's original 45-pound device to 7 pounds and added features such as password protection to keep patients with moderate to severe lymphedema from dialing up the pressure on their own, to cut their daily treatment times.

The Wright pumps, which cost $6,000, have been used to treat patients as young as 2 weeks, and as old as 99. One patient in her 30s had a leg that was 60 percent of her body weight. Facing amputation, "She got one of our pumps, and she got better," Wright said.

Wright Therapy recently secured an undisclosed amount of venture capital that will help to build a sales force to begin marketing the latest pump, which patients in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia have tested.

Help has come from the South Oakland-based life sciences greenhouse, which provided Wright's company with $25,000, and has invested a total $15 million in 60 companies.

"Pittsburgh has a very vibrant, tight-knit community" of medical technology entrepreneurs, organizations and investors, said Michele Migliuolo, a former executive-in-residence at the greenhouse who now heads the South Side-based startup NeuroInterventions Inc. "It's easy to get help, and easy to network."

The NeuroInterventions catheter system will start animal trials next month at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester, he said. It's designed to speed post-stroke treatment. Unlike conventional catheters used to clear blood clots in the brain, the company's device enters through the neck instead of the femoral artery, at the groin.

NeuroInterventions' catheter opens a clot, delivers blood thinners and suctions it out. "Time is brain," said Migliuolo, who has raised $1 million for development of the device, including $400,000 from the greenhouse and $100,000 from state-funded Innovation Works, which aids entrepreneurs.

"There is an entrepreneurial spirit here in Pittsburgh, and we are starting to get noticed outside the region" by firms that provide capital, said Alan West, another veteran of the greenhouse's executive-in-residence program, which encourages professionals with experience in launching products to move on to one of the companies they help.

West now runs Carmell Therapeutics Inc., which is building blood plasma-based plastics to promote healing. Hospitals now use a spinning process to form a concentration of a patient's blood platelets, then place it near a wound or surgery site. Still, "as we get older our regenerative powers lessen, so this doesn't work in every patient," he said.

Carmell's product is ready-made and uses banked blood. Animal tests have been done, and clinical trials with humans could start in a year. The company uses laboratory space at Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side, and is an outgrowth of the Allegheny Singer Research Institute, the hospital's technology transfer arm.

 To read more, visit the Tribune-Review website.

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