The use of guidewires has replaced open heart surgery for many cardiac patients. However, about 20 per cent of cardiac patients can’t be treated using current guidewire technology, which the cardiologist has to manoeuvre by hand through the arteries. Sometimes they can’t get through.
As an engineering student, Geoff Rogers heard a clinician express his frustration with the technology. So, for his undergraduate project and PhD, he invented a steerable guidewire with a diameter the size of just two human hairs. Following his PhD, he co-founded a company that worked with cardiologists at the Epworth and Melbourne Private Hospitals to develop the IntelliWire.
In 2017, the Rogers’s company and guidewire were purchased by Merit Medical Systems, a global leader in surgical devices, which is now working to bring the guidewire to market.
Now Rogers is leading two new initiatives: the first as CEO of a biomedical start-up company developing new solutions to antibiotic resistance; the second is designing a real-time system to adjust car wheel alignment. He’s also mentoring future biomedical entrepreneurs.
Rogers’s passion for engineering was sparked by his father, a mechanic, as was his interest in fast cars. It was not until his final undergraduate year, after a talk by a visiting surgeon, that he realised engineering could save lives. To explore the limits of engineering and to solve problems which hadn’t been solved by traditional large-scale engineering, he set off on his PhD in micro and nanotechnology.
Guidewires have transformed cardiac surgery, replacing major surgery with a single day-long procedure. The cardiologist puts a bend in the guidewire, inserts it via the patient’s groin, and pushes it through the patient’s blood vessels, while watching the operation’s progress on an X-ray machine.
If the cardiologist can’t manage to push and rotate the guidewire to the right location, they can try with a new wire. In about 20 per cent of patients, the wire can’t be manoeuvred through and the patient is referred for either open-heart surgery or pharmaceuticals – which “aren’t ideal at all”, Rogers says.
His guidewires are complex devices that can be steered through the blood vessel system by remote control. “They’re the thickness of two human hairs, and they contain 15 components – all of which are custom-manufactured, and assembled by hand,” says Rogers. “At that small scale, materials behave differently. For example, everything’s sticky. So, it was quite a challenge, spanning four years of intensive research followed by five years of further refinement and preclinical trials.”
Rogers and his team made about 100 wires, but they soon realised they needed a partner to scale up. They wanted to make hundreds of thousands of wires, and to get them into the hands of cardiologists around the world in the fastest way possible. “We went to Merit Medical Systems in Utah, the leading manufacturer of guidewires,” he says.
Presenting to their board and seeing their reaction to this device we’d been quietly developing back in Australia was just amazing. They too see it as the future of minimally invasive medicine.
Merit acquired the technology and company in 2017. “I’m not one to sit still. My next challenge is antibiotic resistance,’’ he says. “I’ve joined Wintermute Biomedical in the US which has a novel antibiotic formulation. We’re establishing labs here in Melbourne.’’