S2E13 - Intelligent Implants: Electrical Stimulation for Bone & Tissue Healing

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'Meet the Innovators' Season 2, Episode 13: A video interview with John Zellmer, CEO and Co-founder of Intelligent Implants Ltd., a Houston-based orthopedic start-up pioneering the use of wireless electrotherapeutic devices that stimulate bone and tissue growth, and promote healing– all in real-time.


Meet John Zellmer, MBA. John is CEO and co-founder of Intelligent Implants Ltd., a Houston-based orthopedic start-up pioneering the use of wireless electrotherapeutic devices that stimulate bone and tissue growth, and promote healing–all in real-time. Ultimately, the company hopes to improve the outcomes of spinal fusion surgery.

Spinal fusion is the gold standard procedure for the treatment of lumbar and cervical fractures, deformities, and spinal instability. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), spinal fusion is the fifth most common inpatient procedure in the US, performed on more than 450,000 US patients each year. (For the history of spinal fusion surgery, read “In MedTech History: Spinal Fusion,” by Tracy Schaaf, Community Blog.)

However, this procedure can cause significant complications such as infection, nerve damage, and nonunions (Pseudoarthrosis), which sometimes lead to revision surgery. While there are technologies that are effective at increasing union rates, like Medtronic plc’s biologic Infuse, these interventions can lead to bone overgrowth, which in and of itself leads to more revision surgeries. Many patients never return to a fully active life after the surgical failures—a lesson John and his brother, Erik Zellmer, PhD, learned early on. John explains that the brothers’ “stepmother had six spinal surgeries. She had one incident of nonunion and one heterotopic bone formation incident, where bone tissue formed outside of her skeleton. This has left her with permanent nerve damage that severely impacts her quality of life.” This experience left a mark on the brothers that would eventually lead them to seek a solution.

“My brother, a doctor of biomedical engineering, and one of his neurosurgeon friends were observing a revision surgery for spinal fusion. Then they got talking about the issues they have with nonunions following spinal fusion surgeries,” John begins. “My brother worked mostly in peripheral nerve stimulation with implantable systems, so he suggested that they incorporate the electrical stimulation system within the implant,” John said, continuing, “He knew that electrical stimulation could stimulate bone tissue.” Afterward, Erik called John with the beginnings of an idea that could prove to be one of the more significant leaps in orthopedics innovation: the introduction of an electrostimulator that resides inside an intervertebral cage to encourage natural bone and tissue growth and improve these fusion rates. From there, the brothers partnered with co-founders Martin Larsson, MBA, Rory Murphy, MD, and Juan Pardo, PhD, and established Intelligent Implants.

Typically, during intervertebral fusion surgery, the surgeon places a metal or plastic spacer, or cage, between the vertebrae. Armed with studies showing conclusively that electrical stimulation techniques can lead to bone cell proliferation, John and the team integrated a miniature, wireless electrical stimulation system with an array of electrodes into the standard PEEK cages. The device then activates an electric field to attract mineral and protein-rich cells needed for bone growth. The device also allows individual control of each electrode, empowering the company to monitor the formation of bone in the fusion site and then to decide where they want to stimulate bone growth. If the bone begins to grow near nerve roots or the spinal cord, the device then dispels a different electric field that stops the bone from growing in those directions. At the same time, the device gathers and organizes the data and presents it to physicians so they can make more informed clinical decisions based on that data—all in real-time.

Having received funding from Bioverge (see “Bioverge Fills an Early-Stage Funding Gap While Democratizing Private Investing,” by Mary Stuart, MedTech Strategist), the TMC Venture Fund and the angelMD Catalyst Fund, awarded second place in the Center for Device Innovation @ TMC QuickFire Challenge, and awarded a residency at the Johnson & Johnson incubator, JLABS @ TMC, John is grateful for the positive recognition they have received along the way. With the company’s foundational patent approval by the United States, Patent, and Trademark Office behind them and successful animal trials showing favorable outcomes, John and the Intelligent Implants team are well on their way to make a significant mark on orthopedic innovation. From all of us at MedTech Strategist, we offer John, his fellow co-founders, and the rest of the Intelligent Implants team congratulations, and best of luck!


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