Paul Westhaver has invented the seemingly impossible: a surgical scalpel that stops the bleeding as it cuts.
The professional engineer from Dartmouth is now using the scalpel to launch a new medical device business in the Halifax area.
"The whole idea here really is to develop a soup-to-nuts industry," says Westhaver, as he cuts into a piece of cow’s liver with the scalpel.
"What I am envisioning is a complete infrastructure to support the development of medical devices and sales from here."
An electromechanical engineer who trained at Dalhousie University, Westhaver has spent the last decade in the Boston area inventing medical devices, from brain surgery instruments to orthopedic screws.
"It is basically a business in a box," Westhaver said recently during a demonstration at the National Research Council office in Halifax.
The scalpel is attached to a motor and radio transmitter, and cuts using high-frequency sound. Touching human or animal tissue with the scalpel creates a high-intensity pressure field around the blade. This allows the blade to make delicate cuts through the tissue while simultaneously coagulating it, or sealing it off, so it doesn’t bleed.
One of the challenges of endoscopic surgery — minimally invasive surgery done through a trocar, or hollow tube — is tying off arteries to stop the bleeding. Westhaver’s scalpel eliminates that need.
"It basically glues the vessels together with their own raw material," he said.
Westhaver, who worked as a consultant for various medical device companies in the U.S., invented the scalpel several years ago while working with Axya Medical in Beverley, Mass. Westhaver said Axya was recently acquired by another company focusing on orthopedic medical devices, giving him an opportunity to scoop up the rights to the scalpel.
He declined to disclose how much he paid for it.
"Don’t ask for any money," he jokes. "I haven’t got any more."
Westhaver said he won’t be in debt too much longer because he has just negotiated a joint venture with U.S. investment company Ramshorn Development.
"They understand the potential of this and are underwriting financially so I don’t have to carry the debt any longer."
Westhaver and his U.S partner are about to launch their own medical device company in Halifax called St. Andrew’s Cross.
Westhaver is working with Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre surgeons to refine his scalpel so it can be used for specific procedures. He believes it has numerous applications, from cardiac to gynecological surgery.
"It is FDA approved but the specific applications are not yet determined. There is really a cornucopia of opportunities.
"A couple of them are kind of secret. They are enormous projects and I am not at liberty to discuss it because we are going through intellectual property filings."
Hospitals will probably be able to buy the scalpel for under $10,000. However, disposable parts for the scalpel could cost between $200 and $400 per procedure.
Westhaver plans to set up a research and development laboratory in Halifax, near the QEII, and hopes to have the approvals to set up a manufacturing facility in metro by the end of this year so he can produce the scalpels and other medical devices.
"With the intellectual property that we own and some confidential projects that we are pursuing, we are looking to grow a business in the order of $20 million to $120 million."
The main market for medical devices is the U.S., he said.
"After being in Boston and working with physicians there, and regulatory folks there, and engineers, I came to the conclusion that Halifax was very well-suited to do the same."
The National Research Council has been helping Westhaver to make contacts to further develop his invention.
"It is a great opportunity. It is not every day that someone with those skills comes to Halifax, particularly with this technology," said Don Douglas, who works with the council’s industrial research assistance program in Halifax.
"Halifax is in the transition of making the change to a more user-friendly place for companies to develop medical discoveries into something that is of use to us. Canadians have been very slow to recognize that the only way they can benefit from a medical discovery is through commercialization."
Marli MacNeil, chief executive officer of BioNova, the Nova Scotia Biotechnology and Life Sciences Industry Association, says the province already has quite a strong medical device industry. She gives the example of MedMira, which develops and manufactures rapid HIV tests in Halifax.
Westhaver "is bringing his expertise and his connections here," she said.
"It sets (the medical device industry) up as something that is going to grow here. That is certainly his goal and we are happy to have him," MacNeil said.
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