the device life

medical technology expands to younger generations

Neuromodulation field offers broad new horizons for patients and medical firms

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2013 - 8:14 AM

The array of implantable devices is allowing more patients who suffer chronic pain and disability to enjoy active lifestyles that once seemed unimaginable.


Matthew Taylor always wanted to run, but a future in a wheelchair was more likely.

Stricken with cerebral palsy, Matthew tried all sorts of treatments to loosen his locked limbs. Doctors “released” his hamstrings by cutting them surgically to relax the leg muscles. His hip and pelvis were turned and braced. He even took Botox injections, but relief was short-lived.

By the time Taylor was 12, the notion of implanting a gadget in his body to pump medicine to his spine didn’t seem that radical, but the results certainly were. Now 16, he runs cross-country for his high school in Baldwin, Fla. — a metal pump the size of a hockey puck just beneath the skin of his belly.

“I feel like I’m special,” said Taylor, standing in his bedroom near his row of running medals. “People put me in the position where I am able to run.”

His turnaround stems from a burgeoning area of medical technology called neuromodulation, in which doctors use implantable devices to deliver drugs or electronic pulses directly to the brain or other parts of the body in duress. The array of devices is allowing more patients who suffer chronic pain and disability to enjoy active lifestyles that once seemed unimaginable.

Such treatments are expanding the development of medical devices beyond elderly care and creating some of the fastest-growing markets for medical technology companies.

“The number of diseases that this will impact is the next new frontier,” said Thomas Gunderson, a senior analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co.

More than 19,000 Americans in 2010 had a procedure to implant a device that electrically stimulates the spinal cord, the brain or peripheral nerves — an 80 percent increase over 2000, according to a Star Tribune analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The vast majority were younger than 65, many younger than 45.

More than 200,000 patients worldwide have the same drug pump as Taylor. Other small, battery-powered devices have been designed to send electric pulses into the brain to treat ailments such as Parkinson’s or other movement disorders. About 100,000 people worldwide receive that treatment, according to Medtronic Inc., the world’s largest medical device maker.

“Deep-brain stimulation is the next big thing,” said Paul Stypulkowski, senior director of therapy research for Medtronic. “And developing a system … to read brain electrical activity and adjust treatment will be huge.”

But emerging demand also puts pressure on device makers, as failures can lead to profound complications for patients.

About 9,000 adverse medical events in the U.S. involved implanted spinal cord stimulators in 2010; 500 resulted in hospitalization. Implantable pumps are among the most common devices to be recalled, according to a review by the federal General Accountability Office.

Medtronic’s SynchroMed pump, the same used by Taylor, has been linked to 14 patient deaths over the past 17 years. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued official warnings about that device this past summer.

Taylor says he understands the risks of relying on his drug pump — but there’s no chance he’s giving it up.

“It would be hard for me and my family to go back to where I was.”


Making the connection

The human body’s systems are either chemical or electrical — now doctors and device makers are figuring out how to plug in.

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  • Matthew Taylor played video games in his room. Before a Medtronic pump was implanted to control his cerebral palsy, he couldn’t manipulate a joystick effectively.

  • Left:  Dr. Philipp Aldana held a Medtronic pump that delivers micro doses of drugs.

  • Bianca Reichard, left, and her mother, Cora Correa, are leading more normal lives, thanks to implanted Medtronic devices.

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