“When I need [new hips] again, I’m confident the technology will be better,” Alva said. “How can it not be?”
Something old, something new
Minnesota’s med-tech giants — Medtronic, St. Jude Medical and Boston Scientific — have generated billions in sales over the past 15 years through the development of devices and technology designed to keep the heart beating in aging patients.
Now they are expanding those innovations to treat a variety of other ailments, many afflicting patients who haven’t reached their golden years.
Brent Peterson, a former professional hockey player and coach who lives in Nashville, relies on a small, pacemaker-like gadget to calm his Parkinson’s symptoms by sending a stream of electricity to a spot deep within his brain.
The 55-year-old is a special adviser to the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League. He learned that he had Parkinson’s disease more than a decade ago. At one point, he was taking 25 pills a day.
When Peterson’s device was implanted in 2011, his hands immediately relaxed, and his movements steadied. “The day they turned it on, I knew I didn’t want to be without it ever again,” he said.
Medical device makers didn’t set out to adapt pacemakers to treat other parts of the body, but it made sense to expand the technology as doctors explored what else could be treated with an electrical pulse, said Martin Gerber, senior research and development director at Medtronic.
Peterson’s device, a Medtronic Activa neurostimulator, can be programmed and adjusted to change as his symptoms evolve. More than 100,000 patients worldwide have received Medtronic’s deep-brain stimulation therapy.
The treatment is part of what is called neuromodulation. Implanted devices are used to send medication or electrical pulses into the brain or to the spine to block pain, relax overactive bladders by targeting nerves near the tailbone or ease chronic migraines at the base of the skull. Researchers are exploring electrical stimulation to treat epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe depression for those who have not responded to medication.
The emerging innovations are expanding the products and profits for medical device makers.
At Fridley-based Medtronic, the world’s largest medical-technology company, nearly half of its $16 billion in revenues last fiscal year came from treating something other than the heart, its core market. And at St. Jude Medical, based in Little Canada, officials expect sales from the company’s nonheart rhythm products to surpass the heart rhythm business this year.
Med-tech executives say they are not specifically targeting young patients with these technologies. But they acknowledge these new treatments are attracting younger patients.
“It’s a tremendous growth opportunity,” St. Jude Medical Executive Vice President John Heinmiller said. “How can we innovate those technologies to attack these expensive epidemic diseases that are out there? We are looking at investments that treat a broad patient population.”
Most patients — more than 14,000 estimated in 2010 — who turn to spinal, brain or other stimulation devices are well below retirement age. Of those patients who had a spinal cord stimulator implanted, an estimated 69 percent were younger than 64, with more than 21 percent between the ages of 18 and 44.
Dr. Mehul J. Desai, director of spine, pain medicine and research at Metro Orthopedics & Sports Therapy in Silver Spring, Md., believes the numbers will continue to climb.
“There has been a push by clinicians to think about these therapies earlier on,” he said.
Marketing vs. patient demand