Blue Belt hopes to make cut, replace other hospital tools

| Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009

Orthopaedic surgery is a little like carpentry. The more precise the cut, the better the result — and if a surgeon could use a familiar tool enhanced with technology that senses where a bone should be trimmed, so much the better.

Blue Belt Technologies Inc. of East Liberty used those ideas to design its Precision Freehand Sculptor, which more than 100 surgeons have tested on artificial, animal and cadaver bones. The Carnegie Mellon University spinoff company is attracting investments and attention in Pittsburgh's technology community as it prepares to seek Food and Drug Administration approval for the tool.

"Our hope," CEO Craig S. Markovitz said Tuesday, "is to have the device prepared for sale within a year."

The computer-assisted sculptor snaps on to a standard, hand-held surgical drill that orthopaedic specialists use to correct spinal problems and replace knee and hip joints, for example. Sensors on the device help it to follow a surgeon's preset pattern, which is based on a patient-specific image of the target area.

A surgeon moves the sculptor to shave an area of bone to the desired depth, following a color-coded picture on a computer monitor. The rotating burr at the tip of the sculptor, meanwhile, follows the pattern as it's moved across the bone, extending and retracting as needed as it cuts.

Onscreen, dark blue sections of the picture represent the thickest sections of bone to be removed. Those sections turn to bright green as the sculptor drills on, meaning that a layer closer to the desired depth has been reached.

When yellow appears onscreen, the sculptor stops cutting on its own in those spots.

Surgeons already refer to onscreen magnetic resonance or other images as they operate, said Dr. William Welch, chief of neurological surgery at The Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia.

Blue Belt's tool, which he's tested in laboratory settings, promises to further improve surgical results and enhance safety, he said.

"It takes a fairly straightforward technology and applies it elegantly," Welch said of the sculptor, adding that similar, sensor-based technology could be used with dozens of other surgical tools.

"It is the logical next step," he said. "But they are the first company to do it."

Dr. Anthony M. DiGioia III, an orthopaedic surgeon and founder of CMU's Center for Medical Robotics and Computer Assisted Surgery, and Branislav Jaramaz, an associate research professor with the university's Robotics Institute who has patented several surgical devices, cofounded Blue Belt with Markovitz in 2003.

They were advisers to a doctoral student who came up with a general concept that gradually evolved into the sculptor, Markovitz said. He has a background in venture capital and is a managing director with the health care and business advisory firm AMD3 Consulting Inc.

Blue Belt — named for the local road system which passes the CMU campus — closed on $2.4 million in financing in October led by private investors, including the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse and Innovation Works.

The company, which has 10 full-time and several part-time employees, was a finalist last month in the Life Sciences category for the Pittsburgh Technology Council's annual Tech 50 awards.

In addition to making a smooth cutaway for an implant used in a knee replacement, for example, Blue Belt's sculptor is designed to save time for surgical teams and money for hospitals, Markovitz said.

Carts filled with trays full of guides and other devices used to cut bone during a variety of orthopaedic procedures are lined up outside operating rooms on a typical day.

"This device is designed to replace all of them," he said.

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