Time heals all wounds, as the saying goes, but for some unlucky people, it doesn’t. They survive the car crash, the factory explosion, or the misplaced chop of a machete, and their bodies refuse to stitch back together as the weeks pass. Infection can set in, sometimes fatally.
This is what happened to Sanu Maya, a Nepalese woman from the outskirts of Kathmandu. Her lower legs became infected after a surgical incision failed to close properly. For more than four months, she shuttled between hospitals until finally a doctor delivered the sobering news: She needed a double amputation to save her life.
Her son brought her to another hospital for a second opinion.
There the co-founders of a medical innovation company named Healyx Labs had just begun a clinical study of their device for healing stubborn wounds. Maya became the first patient treated in the study. Within eleven days of starting treatment, she walked out the hospital door on the road to a full recovery.
Raise care, lower costs
Healyx co-founders Cam Hutton, ’14, MS ’16, and Maddy Sides, ’15, MS ’17, first teamed up through Stanford’s landmark Design for Extreme Affordability program in 2015. The two-quarter course led them to learn everything they could about wound healing, eventually landing in the hospital wards of Dhaka, Bangladesh, interviewing patients and shadowing physicians.
“The ingenuity of the doctors there was incredible,” says Hutton, describing how the top surgeons in Dhaka were repurposing basic surgical aspirators for sophisticated wound care procedures. “The problem was their approach had no chance to scale.”
For the past 30 years, the gold standard for treating non-healing open wounds has been a clinically validated advanced procedure called negative-pressure wound therapy. An airtight dressing is applied to a wound site, consisting of a porous foam material fitted into the wound bed and covered with an adhesive film. A vacuum suction device then applies negative pressure across the surface of the wound through the sealed dressing. Essentially the technique creates mechanical forces that stimulate a biological response, leading to faster wound healing.
But the current wound vacuum systems on the market have been slow to reach places like Kathmandu and Dhaka. Based on World Health Organization data, the co-founders estimate that at least 110 million people suffer complex open wounds each year, but less than 10 percent of these receive negative-pressure wound therapy.
The design of current technology is misaligned with the majority of users. Devices are over-engineered with wasteful electricity requirements. Even more, it prices out millions of potential patients. The technology is simply too expensive, often costing $10,000 to purchase the suction unit itself and an estimated $1,000 to $2,000 per week to operate it for each patient, plus associated service costs. Each time a nurse tears open the sterile plastic wrapper of a new dressing, it costs upwards of $200. In developing countries, only the upper echelons of society can afford it.
“We wanted to turn the innovation we saw in the hospitals we visited into a product that changes the way medical care is delivered around the world,” says Hutton.
Investigate and iterate
Since Dhaka, the Healyx team has continued interviewing patients and medical personnel at more than 100 hospitals around the world as they searched for solutions.
In fall 2015, Hutton and Sides were able to secure an Innovation Transfer grant from the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy to apply their fieldwork to developing an advanced prototype of their device. By the following year, the funding had allowed them to build 15 units of their first low-cost vacuum pump that used a fraction of the energy of traditional devices. They also built it to be compatible with a portable solar charger, given that electricity can be unreliable or non-existent in parts of the world that most need this medical care. With a new cache of devices ready to go, they headed right back to South Asia for more user testing.
That real-world progress, in turn, earned them a bench at the Fogarty Institute for Innovation in Mountain View, Calif., an incubator founded by Dr. Thomas Fogarty, the inventor of the heart catheter and a winemaker. Healyx Labs is excited by its recent clinical trial and the team is hoping to raise capital to scale up further.
“It started with the transformative experience of being in hospital wards and seeing the critical need,” says Hutton. “We like the idea of being disruptive. We like the idea of succeeding where others have failed. This is an opportunity to change the lives of millions for a modest amount of money.”