Medical Oasis

Hospital groups throughout the region are transforming their business models to create, test, patent, and manufacture the next generation of drugs, therapies, and diagnostic tools. So what’s the side effect? More jobs.


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 A few years ago, Dr. Alvaro Martinez, then corporate chairman of radiation oncology at Beaumont Health System in Royal Oak, wandered into a hotel conference room where Ford Motor Co. engineers were meeting — a rather different crowd than the medical group he’d been looking for.

Turns out, it was a fortuitous accident. Sitting in the dark, listening to auto engineers discuss how imaging could help them discover defects in an engine block too difficult to detect with the naked eye, Martinez had a light-bulb moment. He realized the same approach could be applied to medical care.

The accidental discovery led to the development of the next generation of radiation treatment for cancer patients. Called OmniBeam, the robotic technology uses real-time CT imaging to automatically adjust the radiation field during treatment. The new method not only accounts for normal patient movement during treatment, but also allows technicians to more precisely target a tumor and avoid damaging healthy tissue. It also cuts treatment time from the usual 90 minutes to just 20 minutes.

Now patented by Beaumont doctors and physicists, the technology is sold as a $3.3-million machine manufactured by Stockholm-based Elekta Axesse and sold around the world. “It’s just that type of cross-fertilization — the accidental intersection of a technology driven by a need that can lead to a new device,” says Thomas Anderson, director of entrepreneurism at Automation Alley in Troy, the state’s largest technology business association.

But if that accidental intersection relies on coincidence, luck, or the rare “aha moment” in a dark conference room, some metro Detroit health care leaders are wondering what might happen if they make innovation a more deliberate practice — mashing design, engineering, and manufacturing expertise with medical practice to produce new products, processes, technologies, and software. That steady stream of new products could improve patient care and also, the theory goes, provide an innovation engine that drives the creation of businesses, patents, and jobs.

“What we’re attempting here is not just improving hospital efficiencies and patient flow,” says Dr. Madhu Prasad, a surgeon at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and director of its new Innovation Institute. “We have a very clear tech transfer and business development imperative.”

Now in the invention business, the goal of area medical systems is to improve health care and burnish Detroit’s standing as an international hub of creativity. To be sure, Henry Ford opened its Innovation Institute at its flagship Detroit campus in October, while Beaumont recently set up a commercialization unit that oversees the development and patenting of new technologies such as an automatic breathing control system used for cancer treatment. In 2007, the University of Michigan Medical Innovation Center in Ann Arbor was created with collaboration from a group of schools — including medicine, business, dentistry, engineering, clinical, and health research — and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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