Dr Chris Underwood of CuMedica has developed a new type of material that could revolutionise surgery and save lives – cellular perfluoroelastomers. The proprietary material was originally developed by the Manchester based company to make artificial blood vessels, used to replace diseased arteries which can lead to heart attacks and strokes, and is capable of making significant improvements in surgery for vascular disease – the single biggest killer in the western world.
For example, a heart by-pass operation could be simplified because the synthetic tubing could be used instead of veins which are taken from the patient's own leg. This new material has a foam-like structure, but with pores too small for the eye to see, and is so flexible that it behaves very like the natural tissue of the body, allowing blood to flow more easily through the implants.
Synthetic replacements for blood vessels have been used for many years but are either rigid, and do not give or stretch like natural blood vessels do, or else degrade (“dissolve”) once implanted. The CuMedica material, which has elastic flexibility, a micro-porous structure and is non-degradable, is claimed to be unlike any other on the market and unmatched for its diverse range of applications.
The technology also has the multi-million pound potential to be used in place of other soft tissue - such as eye corneas, spinal discs, or implants for cosmetic surgery. As a safe breast implant, for example, the material could be ideal because it has nothing in it to leak, unlike silicone implants, which are alleged to have caused such damage to patients in the past, says Dr Underwood.
After years spent developing this unique material he is now seeking to attract the resources to turn this patent pending technology into the commercial reality of a new generation of medical implants.
"This is world-leading technology, but the science was the relatively easy part compared with raising the funding for ongoing development, particularly so in the aftermath of the Sept 11 atrocity. It’s been a tough time from a financial perspective" said Dr Underwood, who has worked in the field of biomaterials for over 25 years and in 1997 founded the CuMedica Group. Located within the Campus Ventures Centre, the business incubator based at Manchester University, the company, from the outset, was dedicated to developing the fledgling concept of a non-degradable, elastomeric implant material. “Various academic groups throughout the world and major multi-national companies have spent millions of pounds over many years trying unsuccessfully to develop this kind of materials technology. Where they have failed, CuMedica has been successful but we now need further investment to embark upon a technology licensing programme and establish the relevant collaborative industrial links to promote full commercial exploitation of our unique platform technology”.
The project has to date attracted funding from the Department of Trade and Industry, with two SMART awards of around £250,000 for feasibility studies, and £200,000 from seedcorn investment company WorkNorth 11.
The company has estimated the market for replacement blood vessels and heart valves could be £1bn a year and, in the United Statesalone, the total potential market for all applications of tissue engineering and organ regeneration is over £30 billion. The range of potential applications and associated markets has not yet been identified in full.
CuMedica’s perfluoroelastomers are a class of polymer not previously used as an implant material and the combination of properties they provide allows fresh design perspectives in the potentially massive but still fledgling field of tissue engineering, where a base scaffold material is required in which biological tissue can be grown to produce an implant.
The CuMedica family of materials have unique characteristics and in relevant circumstances may be a safer alternative to existing, usually degradable, scaffold materials. This is of particular relevance for chronic and/or load bearing applications (for example, pressure containing blood vessels) where maintenance of the strength and chosen physical characteristics of the scaffold is critical to not only promote long-term efficacy of the resultant product but also to provide enhanced security against catastrophic failure throughout the lifetime of implantation.
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