During the 1970s, the UW was a spawning ground for research on high-technology medical devices by electrical engineering and bioengineering professor David Auth and colleagues—work that later led to the founding of Heart Technology. That Redmond, Washington-based firm was founded in 1988 to commercialize the Rotablator® device for cleaning out atherosclerotic arteries. The company went public in 1992, and in 1995 merged with Boston Scientific Corporation.
After joining the UW faculty in 1969, Auth developed a program of research around the theme of "least-invasive surgery." He invented and further developed the Laser Blade Scalpel for bloodless surgical procedures. The device employs a transparent scalpel "blade" which directs laser light to the incision to enhance cutting and to automatically seal blood vessels as it cuts.
Auth invented the Computerized Fast Pulse Endoscopic Coagulator, used for example to stop bleeding from ulcers. The patented technology was licensed to Olympus Corporation of Japan for worldwide distribution. The product went on the market in May, 1985, and by 1987 about $12 million in sales of the units had been achieved. Pointing out that thousands of Americans suffer from gastrointestinal bleeding each year, Auth notes that the instrument allows a physician to stop the bleeding in a matter of seconds.
The multipolar probe for endoscopic coagulation developed by Auth and colleagues was the first safe and effective method of endoscopic coagulation of major arterial bleeding. The researchers manufactured the first six units for clinical and animal trials in the U.S. and abroad. "This system has been a major success for American Hospital Supply Corporation and Microvasive Inc.," says Auth. From 1975 to 1981, Auth was the engineering director of the largest federally-sponsored research program in the U.S. for the development of endoscopic instrumentation.
In 1981, Auth developed the technology leading to the Rotablator® system for cleaning out the plaque that clogs arteries in the disease called atherosclerosis (see Getting to the Heart of Atherosclerosis). The device uses a tiny catheter, which is inserted into the artery and advanced to the area of blockage. A football-shaped burr at the end of the catheter, coated with thousands of tiny diamond crystals, is made to rotate at speeds of up to 190,000 rpm. Like a tiny sander, the tip removes the brittle plaque material while leaving the normal, more elastic tissue intact.
E. R. Squibb & Sons, Inc. established Biophysics International in 1985 as a Squibb unit, where Auth further developed the Rotablator®. In 1988, Auth formed Heart Technology, Inc., and later acquired the assets of Biophysics International in order to market the technology.
The Rotablator® "is particularly well-suited for those patients whose condition consists of complex plaque that cannot be treated as effectively by balloon angioplasty, a technique in which a balloon catheter is inserted into a patient's artery and advanced to the point of narrowing," explains Auth. The balloon is inflated in order to disrupt the plaque and stretch the artery wall; however, no plaque is actually removed. In the past, he explains, patients who could not be treated by balloon angioplasty usually became candidates for bypass surgery, an expensive and traumatic surgical procedure. "Currently, there are over 450,000 balloon angioplasty procedures and over 300,000 bypass surgery procedures performed annually in the United States, along with another 400,000 angioplasty or bypass procedures performed internationally."
Heart Technology received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration in September, 1991 to market the product for applications in the peripheral (leg) arteries, and in June, 1993 for use in the coronary arteries. Internationally, the device is sold in many countries for both coronary and peripheral applications.
By 1995, the company had grown to more than 500 employees, with revenues in excess of $80 million per year. It was sold to Boston Scientific Corporation in 1995 for more than $500 million; the unit is now known as Boston Scientific Corporation Northwest Technology Center, Inc. Auth continues as consultant to the Center, while remaining an affiliate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the UW.