When innovation and expertise meet practicality, the result is not quite magic, but it sure is close.
This is the strength behind Aravis BioTech, a startup headed in part by Jeffrey Anker of the College of Science and John DesJardins of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, as well as Dr. Caleb Behrend, an orthopedic surgeon in Arizona specializing in the spine. The team is developing screws used in orthopedic surgery that employ easy-to-use sensors to determine the status of fracture healing. This, in turn, helps physicians know when patients can safely apply weight to their healing fracture.
Aravis BioTech is one of three finalists for the InnoVision Technology Development Award. InnoVision is a non-profit organization that fosters the growth of South Carolina’s innovation economy and recognizes leadership, innovation and technological excellence.
“My background is in analytical chemistry – which means I make sensors,” said Anker, a professor in the Department of Chemistry.
Anker and DesJardins, a professor in the Department of Bioengineering, met on a bus at a student NASA project at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 2010. The pair decided to bring their work together to develop a medical implant that would change color as a fracture healed. Through a grant from SC BioCRAFT (Bioengineering Center for Regeneration and Formation of Tissues) and an NIH grant, they developed screws that changed color based on how tight they were.
But Dr. Behrend, a spine surgeon and longtime friend and collaborator of Anker’s, said that such a sensor would be more practical if surgeons could see it on an X-ray.
“Most Americans will break a couple of bones, on average, in their lifetime,” Anker said. “If it’s a bad break and you can’t just put a cast on it, they need to put in hardware. That’s where those screws come in.”
An X-ray doesn’t show how well a bone is healing. Between the break and full healing, there is an intermediate phase where the repaired fracture can and should bear weight – the question is how much.
“Maybe it can take your weight for a bit, but it will eventually fatigue and fail,” Anker said. “Similar to a paper clip, I can bend it a lot, but if I go back and forth, back and forth, eventually it will fail. The same thing happens with these implants. That’s a huge problem.”
Consider a hip fracture. Anker said one in 10 Americans will break hips. Rather than replacing the hip, the most common repair is to secure the ball back to the femur with a simple screw.
“People are encouraged to bear weight immediately, but if it’s not healing, the screw will probably eventually cut out of the bone or there will be other mechanical failures,” Anker said. “That happens rarely, but when it happens, it’s devastating.”
The screw is positioned into the bone repair with a wire guided through its hollow core. Aravis BioTech’s implanted device enhances the screw.
“We add a straight piece to the bottom of the hollow screw so that when it bends, this straight piece moves relative to the screw casing,” Anker said. “We make that straight piece out of a material that is dark on X-rays. You can see how much the screw is bending, quantify how much load is on it and be able to track the patient’s progress.”
The implant can help surgeons determine whether the device has been tightened sufficiently during surgery. And because load can lead to postoperative failure, it can help determine whether the patient is at an optimum activity level or if activity needs to be reduced until further healing takes place. Once the bone has healed, the hardware typically stays in and becomes superfluous.
A technology translation grant from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (ICORPS) program to Clemson University allowed the Aravis team to interview a variety of stakeholders, including physicians, patients, physical therapists, insurance executives and hospital administrators to determine if the team is making a device that best meets the needs of patients. A South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA) Acceleration Grant helped fund prototypes.
The team is expanding the idea to plates and other devices, as well as to sensors that can track infection based on chemical changes.
In addition to Aravis BioTech’s honor as an InnoVision Technology Development Award finalist, all four finalists for InnoVision’s COVID-19 Response – Technology Research Award are from Clemson University, including the COVID Microbead Screening Project, a team mentored by Anker, which also won the Clemson COVID Challenge, a summer virtual research and design opportunity. The team investigated a quick COVID-19 test that uses minimal, easily accessed equipment.