Innovation for a Lifetime
By: Jenny Maloney
Imagine a world in which innovation had no limits and in which every problem could be creatively solved. For Michael Larson, El Pomar Endowed Chair of Engineering and Innovation and professor of Mechanical Engineering, that world is the one we are living in today.
"Many people look at a problem, whether large or small, as an annoyance, and they stop thinking about it," Larson says. "The trick is to recognize the problem as an opportunity for creativity and innovation. In fact, many of the products and technologies we use every day are a direct result of this type of thinking."
Larson received his Ph.D. from MIT and taught at Tulane University before relocating to Colorado Springs after Hurricane Katrina. With funding totaling more than $7M from a variety of agencies, including the NSF, the United States Air Force, the Missile Defense Agency, and private corporations, Larson has tackled a number of projects related to the fracture and failure of materials and to optical methods. His current research focus is on laser/materials interactions, especially related to medical applications.
His latest project, a laser tissue fusion device, came about as the result of previous work in medical device design and development. Recognizing the challenges that doctors and patients face when correcting nasal septum deviation, Larson began to approach the problem from a different angle.
Nasal septal deviation is nasal cavity blockage linked to chronic sinusitis and other conditions. To correct it, bone and cartilage are removed from the centerline of the nose, while preserving the mucoperichodrial flaps covering both sides. These flaps must be brought back together through a procedure called "coaptation," which prevents blood clotting and hematoma formation. Coaptation must be completed to ensure the survival of septal cartilage.
If the flaps are not re-joined, the blood supply will be reduced, killing the remaining cartilage and causing serious, irreversible saddle nose deformity wherein a patient's nose collapses.
Currently, coaptation is accomplished with a needle and suture, stapling, or by intranasal packing. Suturing comes with a number of serious shortcomings, including difficulty visualizing and guiding the needle deep in the nasal cavity when working through the nostrils; inadvertent tearing of the vascular nasal wall by the needle, with resultant bleeding leading to immediate visualization problems and to later scarring and healing problems through the development of nasal adhesions; and the possibility of breaking or detaching the needle, requiring a radiological scan to ensure removal of all fragments.
Stapling can also cause bleeding, with similar side effects. Both suturing and stapling can result in sub-optimal coaptation due to a lack of uniformity in closure. This current suture coaptation method also requires a relatively long time in the operating room.
The other method currently used, inserting intranasal packing, is not a benign procedure. In addition to causing discomfort for patients because the material is left in the nose for 24 to 72 hours, studies show that the intranasal packing reduces oxygen saturation and can lead to toxic shock syndrome. In addition to packing, flat splints are often placed in the nostrils on each side of the septal wall to prevent fibrous growth that could potentially cause nasal adhesions as a result of a needle tearing and pushing or pulling mucosa cells into the nasal cavity during suturing.
The small size of the tissues involved necessitates specialized thread and needles. For conventional procedures, suture with a diameter on the order of 0.1 mm is common. Microsurgical procedures can require suture down to 0.001 mm - two orders of magnitude smaller. Surgeons must train extensively to compensate for hand tremor, which is significant given the small structures to be joined.
"I believed that we could design a new medical device that could change the nature of septal surgery. Rather than being invasive and often incredibly painful, the laser tissue fusion device is designed to be inserted into the septum where lasers weld septal tissue together following surgery," Larson explains.
Now, after several prototypes and significant tissue testing, he has received a US patent and his research has been approved for animal trials - a huge step forward in ultimately bringing the product to market.
"Over the years, many studies have demonstrated that lasers hold promise for instant wound closure. However, varying tissue types and lack of physician expertise in using laser technology have been consistent roadblocks. This device eliminates these problems: it is designed specifically for use on septal tissue and can be used without significant training," Larson states. "Our device protects tissue and ensures a complete weld, both of which are required for a successful septoplasty."
Larson's desire for innovation does not end with medical devices, however. After arriving at UCCS, he launched MIND Studios, a product design and development lab that serves inventors throughout the Pikes Peak Region. In the past five years alone, MIND Studios has assisted numerous inventors and entrepreneurs to take their products to market.
The scope of the work varies from retractable dog leashes to assistive door handles, but the intent is the same: to see the world differently and to develop novel solutions that change the direction of industry.
"We have had the pleasure of helping so many people take an idea they thought of in their garage to an actual working prototype, and in some cases, beyond that into large-scale manufacturing. The Pikes Peak Region has a great desire to foster innovation of all kinds, and MIND Studios exists to help make that vision a reality," Larson explains. "It is amazing to see the products that people envision when faced with a problem. If more people responded to challenges with a spirit of innovation, the world might be a very different place."
Larson often reflects on the reasons why people are sometimes so hesitant to be creative or to develop novel solutions. He remarks that small children are often viewed as being incredibly creative. But what happens to that creativity during adulthood?
To encourage innovation and creativity throughout life, Larson believes that both concepts must be taught and reinforced throughout childhood and adolescence. Each year, MIND Studios hosts several workshops and camps that bring middle and high school aged students to UCCS to design games, build products and dream big. "The enthusiasm of the students is evident," Larson reflects. "When presented with vast opportunities for creativity and problem solving coupled with a bit of professional guidance, their imaginations blossom. They begin to believe in their ability to create something of value and to find joy in the process. That's the trick: to believe that you can create and innovate for a lifetime."
Learn more about Larson at the EPIIC website.