MELVILLE – It’s like something straight from a Star Trek episode. A doctor aims a wand at a patient and a thin, focused beam of ionized gas – similar to that of the sun – sears away unhealthy tissue, leaving the healthy flesh virtually unscathed.
Such are the prospects for J-plasma, a patented technology being developed by Melville-based Bovie Medical, a manufacturer of electrosurgical devices.
Potential uses for the unit, expected to start at around $50,000, are for dermatological procedures, trauma surgery, plastic surgery and Bovie’s holy grail, cancer surgery.
The most immediate, and non-invasive, use is in dermatology, and for that Bovie hopes to gain swift approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
"It looks like a miniature version of a Star Wars light saber," says scientist Greg Konesky, lead researcher for Bovie, which is working in conjunction with the German firm Jump Agentur, which shares the patent. The wand, about the size of a large magic
marker, shoots out a focused beam of helium that has been excited by a single electrode. The technology, on which Bovie has invested about $250,000, has also been researched in Russia over the last decade and Bovie now has scientists working on it in Israel.
Its applications are similar to those for laser surgery, with two major advantages, according to George Kromer, who sits on Bovie’s board. For one, surgical lasers have two settings – on and off – requiring the surgeon to fire intermittent pulses, and the laser’s intense heat can damage surrounding tissue.
Laser plastic surgery requires a long recovery time. J-plasma has a variable intensity, for use on various types of tissue.
"Plastic surgeons in particular are looking for something they can control," he said. Laurie Levine MD, a dermatologist in Mineola, said that carbon dioxide and erbium lasers can leave skin reddened for one to six months.
J-plasma’s adjustable beam, she said, "could be a benefit – the only problem is it sounds like a steep learning curve," as doctors determine the best temperatures for various types of tissue.
The other factor is the lower cost. The expected price tag will be half, or less, than the $90,000 to $190,000 for a medical laser. With that advantage, Bovie President Andrew Makrides plans to pry open the company’s initial market of about 11,000 plastic surgeons in the United States.
The overall electrosurgical market, in which the J-plasma device falls, is worth $400 million in the United States (of which $314 million is for surgical lasers) and double that worldwide, Makrides said, citing a study by Medical Data International. It’s growing 10 percent a year.
Bovie is a name long associated with high-tech surgical cutting tools. It was William Bovie who pioneered electrosurgery in Boston during the 1920s.
That technology involves using a high-voltage current passing through a cutting blade, which desiccates – that is, dries – the tissue as it cuts, resulting in minimal bleeding. It can also be used to cauterize bleeders, and the name has become such a part of medical parlance that loyal viewers of television’s ER will often hear a surgeon say, "Hand me the Bovie."
In 1998, the Bovie name was purchased by Aaron Medical, a 20-year- old maker of electrosurgery generators, electrodes, cauteries and other devices. In January, the company plans to open a new European sales and marketing headquarters in Munich.
After years of losses, Bovie earned a modest profit in the first nine months of 2000 — $465,640 on $7.1 million. It employs 96, all but three at its manufacturing facility in St. Petersburg, Fla.; the remainder on Long Island. Kromer expects to top $10 million for the year – without the J-plasma device, whose uses are still being explored, and whose marketing plan is still being developed.
The J-plasma device’s most immediate, and non-invasive, use is in dermatology, where it can be used to remove wrinkles (which are in large part caused by a build-up of dead skin cells), scars, warts and age spots.
"Plastic surgery and dermatology are major markets – we think we can get into them," Makrides said.
Near-future uses include treatment for trauma, the removal of dead tissue from injured organs, and sealing off bleeders much more gently than electrosurgery, which stresses the body by using it as a conductor of electricity. (J-plasma uses the body briefly as a capacitor, storing electrical potential then arcing it back to the electrode hundreds of thousands of times per second.) Researchers in Russia are tackling the challenge of using the technology for heart surgery, timing bursts so they do not interfere with the nerve signals that make the heart beat.
Research is also under way on use of the J-plasma for brain surgery – stopping bleeding from potentially deadly cerebral hemorrhages, where electrosurgery would upset the brain’s delicate electro-chemical system, for example. It might also be used for removing necrotic brain tissue that results from strokes, and for removing tumors.
The greatest promise for Bovie, however, is the J-plasma’s potential use for cancer surgery. A major risk during conventional surgery is that some cancerous cells will be scattered – and the disease will spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body. Using the J-plasma beam to vaporize the malignant tissue in layers could eliminate that problem, and animal studies are under way, Konesky said.
One focus of the research looks at the fact that tumors – due to their higher fluid content – absorb energy faster than healthy tissue, leading to the possibility that the beam can be fine-tuned to zap the cancer, while leaving the surrounding tissue virtually unscathed.