Guy Boulton , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – December 25, 2016
The day after his first call to Barbara Boyan, Kevin Gemas was on a plane to meet her in Atlanta.
Gemas’ company, Mequon-based Titan Spine, was selling titanium medical devices used in back surgery to shore up injured or deteriorating vertebrae.
The devices seemed to work better than the plastic materials that were commonly used for spinal fusions at the time, but Gemas and his Titan Spine co-founder, Neenah spine surgeon Peter Ullrich Jr., didn’t know why.
Boyan did. A cell biologist at Emory University, she had spent decades studying how bones heal.
“There is more here than meets the eye, and more than you guys probably realize,” she said at the time, according to Gemas.
The result of that 2009 meeting was the development of a second generation of devices with a more precisely roughened surface that resembles that of bone and that theoretically triggers the cellular reaction needed to encourage beneficial bone growth.
For people with debilitating back pain, this may lead to reduced inflammation, quicker healing and better outcomes.
Following Gemas’ meeting with Boyan, Titan Spine developed a manufacturing process that creates pits in its devices on a scale of one to three micrometers. By comparison, a cell is 10 micrometers.
The approach is “biomimetic,” or designed to mimic nature, said William Murphy, a professor of biomedical engineering and orthopedics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“There’s a lot of potential in that strategy,” said Murphy, who is co-director of the university’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.
Titan Spine’s first generation of devices gave the company a solid foundation. The company — which employs some 84 people and has a manufacturing and inspection plant in Brown Deer — is on track for revenue of $43 million this year.
The new devices have the potential of setting it apart in a large and lucrative market. About 650,000 to 675,000 spinal fusions are done a year, said Charles Whelan, a senior analyst who follows the medical-device industry for Frost & Sullivan, a research and consulting company.
The market for metal and plastic medical devices for spine surgery is estimated at $1.6 billion a year. And despite criticisms that spinal fusions are done too often, the market continues to grow at 4% to 5% a year.
Titan Spine is the only company with clearance from the Food and Drug Administration for medical devices with a nano-textured surface — distinguishing them from devices made of plastic or bone from cadavers as well as other devices made of titanium.