By Rick Sobey
LOWELL - The surgeon opens up the leg, inserting metal plates, rods and screws to solve the complex ankle fracture.
But what if there was an alternative method, preventing metal from hanging out in the body for years to come? What if there was material that would help bones heal and then disappear?
Many companies have thought of absorbable "bone glue" in the past, and a Lowell startup is trying to be the first group to successfully get there.
Officials at LaunchPad Medical, LLC, say they're on the right track to breaking ground with this technology. They recently launched their product, Tetranite adhesive, onto the International Space Station for experiments in microgravity environment, and soon will publish the results from those trials. The company is also testing in animals based on strict FDA regulations, and officials hope to get FDA approval in the next year to start testing in humans.
"This could replace the need for complicated surgeries of metal plates, screws and rods," Launch-Pad Medical CEO Brian Hess said last week at its incubator space at the Wannalancit Mills on Suffolk Street.
"People have been trying to engineer a glue for years, but we hope to be the first to bring it to market," Hess added.
The biggest challenge for companies has been water. The human body is full of water, so these companies have grappled with finding a way to glue something underwater.
LaunchPad Medical looked at how barnacles glue themselves to the bottom of boats and piers in water.
They learned that barnacles secrete an underwater adhesive. The company then reverse-engineered this protein, and created an underwater natural glue.
The material, Tetranite, can glue broken bones back together and then get replaced with bone over time, Hess said.
"It does the job and then gets out of the way," he said.
Hess, a co-inventor of 12 patents and graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management, helped found LaunchPad Medical in 2014. They started testing in Mike Brown's Braintree basement; Brown is now the company's research and development program manager.
From the product development trials in his basement, they eventually expanded to incubator spaces at UMass Lowell, under the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2) umbrella.
LaunchPad Medical first went to the M2D2 biotechnology lab on Canal Street, and are now in the medical device lab on Suffolk Street.
In 2016, the company was second place at M2D2's $100,000 challenge, and in 2017, they won the "People's Choice Award" at M2D2's $100,000 challenge.
"They're trying to give medical companies like us an actual shot, and all of this helps grow the medical device ecosystem of Eastern Massachusetts," Hess said. Tetranite, the unique biomaterial, will revolutionize treatment options and improve the standard of care, according to Hess.
"Over time, the body absorbs it and replaces it with new bone," he said.
They tested their product on the International Space Station, where astronauts lose up to 2 percent of bone mass per month.
With no gravity and no stress on bones, it's the perfect environment to accelerate osteoporosis.
"So if we could go up there and grow bone, that'd be really exciting," Hess said.
From December to January, the product was tested in space. The results show that Tetranite is biocompatible and promoted bone growth, according to the CEO. Those "promising" results will soon be published. The company hopes to change implant dentistry in the future, Hess said.
Its product will help speed up the tooth replacement process, he said; instead of five surgical steps over a year, it could be down to one or two steps within weeks. For a dental implant procedure, the estimated cost of material alone would be a few hundred dollars. The cost would be higher for a leg surgery that requires more material.
Eventually, Launchpad Medical would like to move out of the UMass Lowell incubator space and have a facility in Eastern Massachusetts.
"Every dollar I raise, I can have it go to a fancy lab in Cambridge, but then every dollar I spend on fanciness, I don't have to do the actual research," Hess said. "Or I can spend it in facilities like this, where my dollar is stretching much further.
"Hopefully we'll stay out in Lowell for awhile," he added. "It's really working for us."