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Healing by Design

Healing by Design
They are two very different people from different generations, but Harry Wotton '94, '96(MS) and Doug Noiles '44 share a common passion—solving important problems by looking at them in new ways. They also share the entrepreneurial courage to launch companies, developing their innovative designs when others would not take the risk. Because of their work, people who need knee or hip replacements now live better lives, and pets who suffer from orthopedic injuries or disease have better care. Meet the bone fixers.

When freshman Harry Wotton stepped onto the WPI campus in 1990, he had a plan. Train as an engineer, then apply that knowledge to medicine. He hoped to become a medical doctor, but along the way—while planning for his Major Qualifying Project (MQP), actually—a f lash of insight set Wotton on a different path.

It started when his advisor, Rick Sisson, the George F. Fuller Professor in Mechanical Engineering at WPI, spoke with Dr. Karl Kraus, who was then a veterinary surgeon at Tufts University. Kraus told Sisson that orthopedic devices to treat dogs with broken legs were not optimal; many dogs did not heal well because the existing devices were prone to failure. Sisson arranged for Wotton to meet with Kraus, and the seeds of his MQP took root.

As Wotton listened to the veterinarian, he immediately realized an underlying flaw with the existing orthopedic products—they were derivatives of devices first designed for humans. "When people leave the hospital with a broken leg they have crutches or a wheelchair, so they don't have to carry their weight on the broken limb while it heals," Wotton says. "That doesn't work for dogs—they need to walk on the broken leg right away. The design for a dog device had to be different."

So Wotton began to design a new orthopedic device for dogs with broken legs. The project combined engineering with his passion for working in a medical field. The fact that it was a canine, not human, medical problem was a modest adjustment he was comfortable making.

For the remainder of his senior year and into his graduate studies at WPI, Wotton worked on the problem and eventually designed an external fixation device. The design provided stability for the bone and tissues to heal, while carrying the animal's weight while it walked.

Wotton built and tested his prototypes in the Washburn Shops. When the design reached a mature enough stage, and the mechanical testing results were optimal, Kraus agreed to test it in the clinic. "A dog had come into the emergency room at Tufts with a fracture and, with the owner's consent, Dr. Kraus used the new device," Wotton recalls. "It worked well, right away."

That first success led to several additional clinical studies at Tufts, with similar results, all of which were published in leading veterinary journals. Kraus confirmed that the new device was a breakthrough—it helped the dogs heal quickly and it was exceedingly reliable. "After those studies, I tried to sell the idea to a company that is now my competitor. But they didn't want it," Wotton says. "Professor Sisson encouraged me to start my own company."

It was 1996 and Wotton faced a major decision. In spite of his growing interest in product design, and the success of his MQP (shown in photo), he had applied and was accepted to medical school. He could have been a doctor if he so chose. "Ultimately, I had to say no to medical school. I was having too much fun," Wotton says. "I love the creative process of design—and there is a real excitement to building your own company. I've never regretted the decision."

With an initial investment of $250, a $5,000 gift from his mother, and hours of sweat equity, Wotton started SECUROS in 1997 to build and market the external fixation device. (SECUROS comes from "secure Os," a nod to the Greek word for bone.) The product was a success from the start, and SECUROS attracted a following among veterinary surgeons, who in turn became a source of ideas for new products. "The surgeons were constantly telling me about the problems they were dealing with," he says, "and asking me if I could come up with something to fix them."

Since 1997 Wotton has designed hundreds of innovative products, from small screws to large implantable devices, to meet the surgeons' needs. "I tend to do my best thinking at night," he says. "I'll have a thought during the day, and I'll fall asleep thinking about a problem or a design, and I'll often wake up in the middle of the night with ideas to write down."

SECUROS has since grown to 29 employees, with locations in Massachusetts and Germany. The company has seven product lines, hundreds of products, five U.S. patents, and seven patents pending.

In 2007 Wotton sold SECUROS to MWI Veterinary Supply, one of the county's largest animal health products distributors. But Wotton, who lives in northeast Connecticut with his wife and three children, remains the principal designer for the company. "I sold the company only to make it better," he says. "As part of a larger company with a national sales force, we can do so much more. I stayed on as president, and I have quite a long-term contract, so I'll be here for a while. It's fun for me."

This year, Wotton's story came full circle when he became directly involved in the MQPs again, this time as an advisor. Working with Glenn Gaudette, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, Wotton advised four seniors who took on his challenge to design a new product to treat chronic hip dislocations in dogs. The students, Meghan Pasquali, Nicholas Pelletier, Jennifer Richards, and Jonathan Shoemaker, developed a product design, then built and refined several prototypes. They received the 2009 Provost's Award for their work, and now SECUROS will explore commercializing their concepts. "It was great working with the students," Wotton says. "WPI changed my life, and I want to continue to be a part of it. So this is my way to stay involved and give back."

Doug Noiles was in San Francisco for a conference of orthopedic surgeons and had gone back to his hotel room in Chinatown to think about the problems that doctors were having with replacement hips and knees. It was the early 1970s, and Noiles wasn't a physician but an engineer with a track record of designing successful surgical equipment. Specifically, he was in charge of the design and development team at United States Surgical—a small but growing company in Norwalk, Conn.—who had developed the first commercially viable, clinically effective, surgical stapling system. Business was booming.

"Stapling has a lot of advantages over suturing," he says. "Less handling of tissue makes for faster healing. Staples can be placed more quickly and precisely. Some procedures and delicate tissues permit stapling when suturing isn't possible. Plus, the body accepts stainless steel well."

Orthopedic surgeons were among the biggest users of the staplers, and while the surgeons Noiles spoke with at the conference that day were pleased with his products, they had many problems with the artificial knee and hip joints available at the time. The failure rate for the artificial joints was high, and when they did fail, they caused more damage to the remnant bone and muscle, necessitating additional reconstructive surgery. Patients who suffered a failure were often left with little or no motion in the newly repaired joints. "The devices used after the initial prosthetic failed were pretty awful," Noiles recalls. "Some were, essentially, heavy steel hinges."

Noiles listened to the surgeons at the conference, and, as he had done all his life, he began to think about the problem in a functional, mechanical way. Ever since he was a young boy growing up in Hudson, Mass., he had been captivated by how things worked. When he was just 6 years old, he began building his own kites and model airplanes, inspired by both the creative process of design and by understanding the mechanics that allowed them to take flight. "As far back as I can remember," Noiles says, "I liked to pick up things and ask, 'What does it do? How is it made? Why is made that way? Is there a better way to make it?'"

As he focused on the problems of the existing knee joints, Noiles took a new approach. "For the most part, those devices were designed by physicians to reproduce the natural structures of the joints—to make them look like what nature had created—and that just wasn't working," he says. "Rather than trying to duplicate the natural form, I believed these devices had to be designed like machines. First, they had to be durable, and then they had to closely replicate the forces and the motions of the natural joint."

After the conference, the design of an artificial knee captivated his thoughts as he settled into bed in the hotel room. "I remember this as vividly today as when it happened," he says. "That night I woke up with a start, sat straight up in bed, and said, 'Why not let it rotate?'"

Although some doctors said it wouldn't work, from that insight Noiles would develop a revolutionary design for a total knee replacement prosthetic that allowed natural rotations. It would eventually become the global standard, but his colleagues at U.S. Surgical were not interested in pursuing the development of artificial joints. The stapling business was growing so rapidly, the company wanted to stay focused on that product line.

Noiles decided to leave the security of a prosperous business and founded his own firm to commercialize the new knee design, along with a new hip device he had also invented. "I couldn't just let these concepts die. I believed they would be better for people," Noiles says. "Plus, U.S. Surgical was getting so big I wasn't comfortable there anymore. There was something I liked about being part of an embryonic start-up environment."

In 1982 Noiles convinced three of his colleagues to make the leap with him, and they founded Joint Medical Products Corp., which developed his new knee joint and other devices. After a successful 13-year run, Noiles and his partners sold the company to Johnson & Johnson in 1995.

Noiles is now retired and living in Connecticut with his wife, Edna, a Navy nurse he met while serving as a Marine in World War II. He looks back on a 50-plus-year career as an inventor and engineer with 90 patents to his name, from his early days designing textile machinery and electronics to his landmark work in medical devices. He is humble about his impact on the industry, although the numbers speak for themselves: Each year in the United States, more than 500,000 people have knee replacement surgery and some 200,000 have hip replacements. And most of those people are living better, healthier lives, because of Noiles's contributions to the field.

The key to a successful design, he says, is to first understand the problem clearly. He favors simplicity over complexity when imagining potential solutions and, most important, he tries to keep an open mind. "When it came to the knee, I say I had the advantage of ignorance. Not being a surgeon, I had no preconceived ideas about what the product should be," Noiles says. "And an important part of the creative process is to recognize that a good idea can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. You have to be willing to listen to people."

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Last modified: October 08, 2009 13:23:25