“To succeed you must fail, often.”
This phrase is often given as advice on how to thrive. At last month’s High-Tech Med Talk, part of Harvard Medical School’s “Mini-Med School Series,” BWH cardiologist Elazer Edelman, MD, PhD, and biomedical engineer Jeff Karp, PhD, along with MGH’s Conor Evans, PhD, confirmed that the adage is true, especially in the age of high-tech innovation.
Edelman, director of the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center, moderated the event. He began by explaining that innovation in the world of medicine is not a straight and fast road, despite how good the final product may look. The barriers researchers and physicians encounter every day are huge. For example, the amount of funding the government allocates to innovation every year is negligible. Through extensive research and novel thinking, Edelman’s team has developed a stent-based drug delivery system that has helped decrease cardiovascular disease sixfold over the past 40 years.
Karp shared information about one of his projects, which is seeking to find solutions for clinicians who treat young children with heart conditions. Using a viscous glue that repels water—inspired by the secretion of slugs and snails—Karp and his team developed a patch that can be applied to repair a blood vessel or cardiac tissue. During a pilot study with the patch, it was too small and slipped off; however, his team scraped up remaining glue to seal the wound. It then functioned perfectly, “failing” and yet ultimately leading to success.
“As we encounter challenges, we approach them the same way and expect a different outcome,” said Karp. “We have been educated out of being creative, and we must break free from the repetitive process and relaxed state our brains gravitate towards.”
Karp and his team have developed a company called Gecko Biomedical, which is pursuing this technology to simplify surgical procedures, specifically minimally invasive surgery. “This has the potential to replace sutures and staples in many procedures,” he said.
Evans, a chemist at MGH’s Wellman Center of Photomedicine, has been trying to solve problems using photomedicine—or the interaction of light and tissues—since he joined the center in 2010. Photomedicine involves the study and application of light to develop innovative medical products or new approaches to providing patient care—such as the virtual biopsies and SMART bandages Evans is working on. The noninvasive virtual biopsy creates a 3-D image using a scanned light beam, while SMART bandages can map oxygen concentrations in skin burns and other wounds. The liquid bandage glows green when the tissue is oxygenated and red when there is less oxygen.
“A lack of oxygen, called hypoxia, can trigger a host of problems depending on where it occurs,” said Evans. “In the skin, low oxygenation leads to the formation of ulcers and chronic wounds, which are difficult to treat and heal. Oxygenation levels within wounds are predictive for how quickly a wound will heal, and low oxygenation is indicative of poorly healing wounds or disease. Unfortunately, we really have no simple-to-use tool that clinicians and patients can use to assess skin oxygenation. A bandage that can measure oxygenation in skin would give doctors, nurses and patients a ‘window’ into their wounds to detect problems in wound healing so that they can receive accurate, prompt care.”
Both Evans and Karp talked about how they have written many unsuccessful grants, which has only motivated them further. Through persistence and assembling multi-disciplinary teams, they have been able to turn those failures into successes, creating the perfect recipe for achievement.
To learn more about the series or to register to attend upcoming talks, visit hms.harvard.edu/news/longwood-seminars. Read more stories about discovery, clinical impact and breakthroughs in BWH Clinical & Research News.