The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) awards take-off grants to academic researchers who have developed a product that has the potential to solve societal problems. This financial support facilitates entrepreneurial activities to test for feasibility and to pave the way to the market. This year, a phase I take-off grant was awarded to Saber Amin Yavari, Assistant Professor at the Department of Orthopedics, UMC Utrecht. This is his story.
A strong start
Every scientific activity starts from a societal problem. Dr. Saber Amin Yavari’s story starts with the use of titanium as implants for orthopedic challenges. Titanium is strong and bio-inert, which makes it a suitable material for prostheses. However, there is a mismatch in mechanical properties of titanium and bone: over time, the high density of the metal will lead to a breakdown of the bone. After some years, the patient has to undergo revision surgery, which is both risky and costly. This is why we need to change the mechanical properties of titanium; the more similar to bone, the better.
Saber came to the Netherlands 8 years ago, to do his PhD research at Delft University of Technology. There, he used metal 3D printing technologies to make titanium more porous, just like bone.
But he did not stop there: he also modified the surface area of his titanium constructs to add extra beneficial functions like better implant integration and prevention of implant-associated infections.
The principle of implant coating: electrophoretic deposition
Saber is using a method called ‘electrophoretic deposition’ (EPD) to improve his titanium constructs. Osteogenic factors or antibiotics are in a solution, and collected onto the titanium construct by applying voltage. The deposition takes place in an electrochemical cell, in which one of the electrodes is the construct to be coated. When the voltage is applied, the solutes are polarized and pulled towards the titanium to form the coating. Many factors can influence the coating quality, including solute concentration, temperature, time, applied voltage, and the shape of the construct.
Last minute decisions require quick and simple procedures
Saber’s PhD supervisor, Prof. Weinans, saw potential in his work, and invited him to the Regenerative Medicine Center Utrecht in 2015, where he could improve his findings for clinical application. Undoubtedly, an antibacterial coating which is matched to the patient’s needs, is an attractive idea. However, orthopedic surgeons often bring a set of possible implants to the operation room and can only decide on the spot, which implant suits best. Coatings might help implant integration and prevention of infections, but coating the whole set of implants would be too expansive and a waste of material, if only one implant will be chosen in the end.
This is where Saber’s idea comes into play. He wants to develop a machine that surgeons can use in the operation room to perform the coating on site. It should enable the personalized optimization of implants despite of last minute decisions. “The procedure should be quick and easy, without the need of technical support”, says Saber. With the NWO take-off grant, he wants to explore the feasibility of such a machine within the next 6 months.
Next steps… into the world of business?
“We have already performed successful experiments in rodents. Probably, we will continue with studies in rabbits, which have an immune system that is more similar to humans. The next step will be clinical trials which will depend on investors, regulatory approvals, and flexible surgeons”, says Saber. Luckily, he is being supported by several orthopedic surgeons, including Dr. Vogely and Dr. van der Wal: “We are honored by the presence of great surgeons in our team who are willing to share their experiences to develop this product.”
Although Saber describes himself as a full-blood academic, he is happy about the chance to take entrepreneurial steps with his project: “I will be really satisfied if we are able to bring a scientific achievement to practice level for the sake of welfare of clinical audience; from surgeons to patients.” In his view, scientists should always strive for valorization opportunities. “Of course, we are happy to publish our findings in high-impact factor journals, but science should not end up there. Ultimately, it should always find its way to people.”