The BioInnovation Institute in Akron is more than a building or institutions.
Ever since Akron’s three hospital systems, its university and the region’s medical school formed a partnership, their focus has been on developing products and programs that improve people’s lives, said Dr. Frank L. Douglas, the institute’s president and chief executive.
In fact, the institute describes itself as “focused on patient-centered innovation and commercialization.”
“It’s how we operate,” Douglas said.
Behind every prototype, every program and every research project, there are real people whose lives could be changed by the results.
These are two of their stories.
Surgery defines childhood
She’s only 14, but Alyssa Waler already has had more back operations than birthdays.
The Stow teen underwent her first operation to try to straighten her severely curved spine when she was 4 years old after braces failed to fix the problem.
By last year, she’d been through 17 operations.
A large scar stretching from her neck to the tailbone gives a hint at the suffering she’s endured.
“When I was younger, I wanted to get into cheerleading and volleyball and basketball, but I couldn’t do it,” she said. “Usually, I would sit on the bleachers and watch.”
Patients like Alyssa are the reason Dr. Todd Ritzman and Stephen D. Fening are working to develop a medical device through the BioInnovation Institute’s first spinoff company, Apto Orthopaedics.
The startup firm, launched this year, is developing a device to treat children with severe scoliosis without requiring multiple, painful operations. The home-grown technology also could lead to other products that offer less invasive treatment of fractures and other conditions.
The device uses a magnet that can adjust metal screws on implants from outside the body after the initial surgery, eliminating the need for repeat operations.
The product is geared toward children with early-onset scoliosis that is diagnosed when they are 9 or younger, said Ritzman, an orthopedic surgeon at Akron Children’s Hospital who helped invent the device.
Current treatment for these patients requires them to undergo an operation every six months to adjust their implants because their spine is growing, said Ritzman, who specializes in early-onset scoliosis.
“We have to control the curve but leave room for growth,” Ritzman said. “Typically, if they’re older, you can just do a one-state surgery, where you fuse the spine.”
He estimates 10 to 20 percent of the roughly 15,000 patients diagnosed with a curvature of the spine annually have early-onset scoliosis, which requires a minimum of three to four operations.
“It’s tremendously stressful on a child,” he said.
For Alyssa, the constant hospital stays, missed school and pain have been difficult to handle at times.
She has dozens of cards and pictures her classmates have made for her over the years to cheer her spirits after surgery.
“It’s nothing anybody wants to go through, especially a child,” said her mother, Corinne Wagner.
Apto Orthopaedic’s device would allow patients with this condition to have a more normal childhood, not one defined by pain and surgery, Ritzman said.
“Everyone’s excited about the potential to improve the course of treatment,” he said.
Fening, director of Orthopaedic Devices for the BioInnovation Institute, began thinking about the need to develop a medical device for scoliosis patients after attending an industry conference where he heard about the repeat surgery needed to correct the curved spines in young children.
While later watching a television episode of This Old House, he saw magnet devices used to turn a screw inside a wooden bannister from the outside.
As he watched the show, he wondered: Why couldn’t the same concept be used for patients?
Fening met with Ritzman and the two then worked with the institute to develop prototypes and seek provisional patents.
Apto Orthopaedics is a joint venture of Children’s Hospital and the BioInnovation Institute, in which each has an ownership stake. For now, the new company is housed within the institute’s headquarters in downtown Akron and managed by the institute’s Medical Device Development Center.
Another three to five years of lab and animal testing probably are needed before human testing can begin, Ritzman said.
“That would be awesome if they could do that for people,” Wagner said. “It’s been a long road.”
Education controls disease
For years, Pat Rinella struggled with her weight.
But when her doctor suggested she try a free community program to help patients who had been diagnosed with diabetes or those who are at risk, she finally found the help she needed.
By eating smaller meals more frequently, walking and reading food labels, she has shed 23 pounds and kept her blood sugar in check.
“Losing that 23 pounds, I never even thought of dieting,” she said. “I thought about eating — eating right.”
Rinella, 73, of Akron, was among 26 patients who participated in a community education program developed to help patients who are struggling with diabetes.
The program is an example of an effort being led by the BioInnovation Institute to improve the health of the region through an Accountable Care Community initiative.
The project brings together public health, doctors, health systems, higher education, safety-net services, researchers, mental-health services and other community agencies to develop community-wide health improvement programs.
Initial targets include diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and obesity.
The project is receiving between $500,000 and $2 million a year for five years from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The initiative started last year with an outreach effort to provide better care for at-risk diabetic patients from clinics at Akron General Medical Center, Summa Akron City Hospital and the University of Akron’s nursing program.
According to the BioInnovation Institute, about 10.8 percent of Summit County residents are diabetic, compared to 8.3 percent nationwide and 10.1 percent statewide.
Participants in the free program received social support, nutrition education, community exercise programs and other services to help improve their health during 12 two-hour sessions last year.
By attending all the sessions, Rinella said, she learned from the experts as well as the other patients.
“I enjoyed it,” she said. “I just thought that was the greatest thing. I had fun going to the classes. It was really nice hearing other people’s stories.”
The launch of the Personalized Educational and Experiential Modules for Diabetes Management program was funded with $150,000 from the GAR Foundation.
According to the BioInnovation Institute, 14 of the 26 participants in the first diabetes program collectively lost 115.1 pounds.
In a report documenting the results, the researchers concluded: “This was a high-impact solution to the increasing prevalence of diabetes that contributed to the participants’ improved disease self-management and increased self-efficacy.”
Rinella said the program gave her the tools to manage her own health.
“It’s the little things they’re trying to get you to do, like before you go to bed, have a half a slice of whole wheat bread with a little bit of peanut butter on it,” she said. “The walking, the exercise, really mean a lot.”