Dr. Sanjeev Dutta is a pediatric surgeon at Stanford's Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Pablo Garcia is an accomplished engineer at SRI International in Menlo Park. Together the two men share one goal: develop desperately needed surgical instruments to use on the tiniest of patients. It is a niche market that is widely ignored by big companies.
"We are a non-profit," said Garcia. "We have the luxury of being able to concentrate on problems that are important and not necessarily problems that have a big financial return."
Dutta says surgeons often improvise when working on infants. They will modify tools designed to work on adults, or in many cases, be forced to perform more invasive surgery. Take for instance a condition called esophageal atresia. It is a rare but severe problem in which the swallowing tube is abnormally attached to the airway. The fix can be traumatic.
"When you make a big incision in the chest wall like that, it can cause problems with chest wall deformity later in life and with the growth of the child leading to problems such as a winged scapula or scoliosis," said Dutta.
SRI is working on a patented product that will allow Dutta and his colleagues around the world to reach the point of surgery through the mouth.
Five-year-old Ryan Goldberg could be a candidate for use of the new product. He still faces challenges associated with scar tissue from his original surgeries as an infant.
"He still has some issues though with regard to chewing and eating because that stricture is still there," said Ryan's mother Cindy Goldberg.
Garcia is working on scaling down the current design and this is not the only product in the pipeline. SRI was on the cutting edge of robotic surgery and is now ready to explore the largely uncharted territory of pediatric devices.
"That requires careful design, it requires often new approaches, innovative manufacturing techniques, and ultimately it's about making a product that is effective and is safe," said Garcia.
The federal government has pledged one million dollars to help the team commercialize innovative tools. Surgeons committed to saving lives hope the collaboration attracts even more supporters.
"There may also be philanthropic societies that would like to see certain diseases addressed with devices and may be interested in helping get those devices to market as well," said Dutta.
The teamwork could change the future of pediatric care and the lives of young patients.