A West Lafayette startup has found a tiny way to make a big impact in the orthopedic industry -- and is branching out into the state's latest life-sciences frontier.
Nanovis, founded in 2006, has developed a better way to integrate manmade implants with the human body, regrow bones and deliver antibiotics to infection-prone implant sites.
Based at Purdue University's Research Park -- and with a satellite office in Columbia City, near Fort Wayne -- Nanovis expects to add research and sales staff soon and have its first product on the market by next year.
"We're going pretty fast and pretty hard," said Matt Hedrick, the company's founder and chief operating officer.
When doctors work to repair bones or replace them, their work can be hampered by the body's immune system.
"If you just stick a piece of metal in a bone, the body will recognize it as a foreign invader," said Dr. Jeffrey Anglen, chair of the Department of Orthopedics at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
That "foreign invader" designation means bones won't grow into an implant. Scar tissue can form, which can lead to limited range of movement and even infection.
However, coatings on the surface of implants, using chemicals to roughen the metal, can encourage bone and blood vessel growth.
And now Nanovis -- a name meaning "small" and "life" -- uses nanotechnology to roughen implant surfaces.
"At a nano (scale), the best conventional implants are very smooth," Hedrick said.
That nanoscale translates to very tiny. There are about 1,000 nanometers in a micron (which itself is one millonth of a meter), and an osteoblast -- the cells that regrow bones -- is about 20 microns across. By comparison, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide.
To get the osteoblasts to stick to the smooth metal surface, Nanovis uses a process called anodization, where implants have tiny bits of metal deposited on their surface by way of a special solution and an electrical current.
"Those surfaces change the way cells interact with those materials," Hedrick said.
Nanovis first product release -- planned for next year -- is a nanopolymer that helps implants and tissues better integrate.
Further down the pipeline are what Hedrick calls nanobiomaterials -- super-tiny bits of ceramic that can be injected into bones to regrow them and be used to help fight bone diseases like osteoporosis. They also have applications in coating implants to help stave off infections.
"Right now, there's nothing like it on the market," Hedrick said.
Anglen said modern medical implants have to be even more durable than in the past because more people live longer and maintain more active lifestyles.
"That connection lasts pretty much forever," he said. "It's a good pain-relief operation, but like any mechanical operation, it can wear out; it can get loose; it can break."
Nanovis has applied to the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and BioCrossroads for funding, but has not yet received any grants. However, it has been granted permission to issue investor tax credits through the IEDC's venture capital tax credit program.
The authority to grant credits is based on a company's potential to create jobs and raise private capital, said Bruce Kidd, the IEDC's director of entrepreneurship and small business.
Under the program, Kidd said, investors can receive a state income tax credit equal to 20 percent of their investment in a company. The company can give out credits that total $500,000.
Kidd said the Nanovis satellite operation is part of a growing group of life-sciences companies in the northeastern corner of the state. So far, the IEDC has granted 15 companies more than $10 million in economic incentives.
"The idea is that we build pockets of companies from Fort Wayne" down to places like Anderson and Muncie, Kidd said, capitalizing on the strength of the area's orthopedic and engineering background.
"You could have a whole corridor of life-sciences companies," he said. "We want to seed as many companies as we can, and Nanovis fits that."