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CMU center gives a boost to biomed

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

By Pamela Gaynor, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If you bring Carnegie Mellon University's renowned robotic and computer science capabilities to bear on clinical problems that the region's doctors face every day, you might give rise to a promising industry.

That's the premise behind the Medical Robotics and Information Technology Center, a program aimed at fostering collaborations between CMU researchers and clinicians in the region's health care community.

Leaders of the initiative, nicknamed Merit, will outline their goals, demonstrate some new technology and kick off a $25 million fund-raising campaign today at the Duquesne Club.

CMU has for years promoted collaborations that would produce commercial opportunities, and numerous medically related projects already are under way. Business ventures that have emerged from them include CASurgica, BoneCraft and Verimetra, said Jim Osborne, executive director of Merit.

As much as anything, Merit was created to give these various efforts a "brand" name that will attract the attention of research funding sources and clinicians, Osborne said.

It is hoped that, with more money and possibly a building that would bring medically related technology research under one roof, the region will become recognized as one of the foremost spawning grounds for a new generation of medical tools -- ranging from robotic surgical devices to hand-held diagnostic equipment.

Of the $25 million Merit is seeking, Osborne said he was hoping $12 million to $13 million would come in the form of private gifts and endowments. The balance would come from research grants.

Osborne said he expected a rapid expansion both of collaborations and companies.

"Within five to eight years, we expect to be really churning things out," he said. "I would expect at least one company a year."

In addition to homegrown companies, the Merit program also hopes to generate at least one major licensing opportunity annually, under which a technology developed here is commercialized by an existing firm either in the region or outside.

The most advanced collaboration to come out of CMU and the medical community so far is one that emerged between Dr. Tony DiGioia, an orthopedic surgeon at West Penn Allegheny Health System, and Branislav Jaramaz, a CMU researcher.

Together, they developed a computer-aided navigation system for guiding hip replacement surgery and another for knee replacement.

Their company, CASurgica, is awaiting federal Food & Drug Administration approval for the hip navigation system and hopes to begin selling the technology by the end of the year in collaboration with Boston-based Visualization Technologies Inc.

Computer-aided surgical navigation systems can help reduce incision sizes by allowing surgeons to rely less on looking directly at the bone while positioning the hip implant.

Using a special stylus that is tracked by infrared cameras or magnetic sensors, a surgeon can touch a patient's hip bone and see his position on a computer image of a preoperative CT scan.

DiGioia said this "passive robotic" technology already had enabled him to reduce the size of hip replacement incisions from 8 inches to 4 and to more accurately position replacement joints. Both accomplishments help improve outcomes for patients.

Another of the handful of commercial ventures to come out of the CMU collaborations, BoneCraft, also aims to improve the planning and execution of orthopedic procedures, though different ones from those DiGioia is working on.

Verimetra is developing minimally invasive surgical tools that have "microelectromechanical" systems, also known as MEMs technology, on their tips. The systems can provide feedback to surgeons on how much pressure they're applying, the temperature of tissue being cut or the proximity of anatomical structures such as nerves that the surgeon may want to reach or avoid.

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