"It's been one of the most exciting things I've ever been involved with in my career," says Young, a neurosurgeon with Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine who performs surgeries at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital. "The results so far with tumor [removal] have just been spectacular. I've had other physicians—anesthesiologists in particular—comment that they use less anesthesia and can't believe how good the patients look immediately after surgery." Listen
Having recently earned approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), NICO plans to introduce BrainPath to the market in the first quarter of 2013. About the width of a Sharpie marker and ranging from two to three inches long with a pointed tip, the device allows neurosurgeons to use a minimally invasive approach to reach brain tumors. The pointed tip slides between brain fascicles, or connective tissues, gently opens a tiny path to reach the tumor, then allows the tissue to move back together when the device is removed. Listen
Likening the brain to a computer network, Young says the brain's gray matter—the individual "computers" in the brain—has been the main focus for 80 years of neurosurgery, with less attention paid to the white matter, or the "network" that connects all of the computers.
"The deficits the patients had [after surgery] were a result of disrupting those connections," says Young. "Being able to go through those areas without disrupting them—simply spreading them apart and getting to the tumors and taking them out—we're seeing results that are far better than what we saw before." Listen
BrainPath is the second product in NICO's portfolio; the startup launched the Myriad brain tumor removal system in 2009. About the size of a pencil, company leaders say the Myriad is the first automated device that can remove tumors through narrow corridors without using a heat source or ultrasonic energy, which damages brain tissue adjacent to the tumor. While the Myriad is a significant advancement, NICO President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Pearson says BrainPath "is a lot bigger deal."
"We couldn't advance minimally invasive neurosurgery because we couldn't get to the target in a way that wasn't so disruptive to the patient that they said, 'I don't want to live my last years in a wheelchair or not being able to move because of this surgery,'" says Pearson. "Now the patient has a chance."
NICO, which recently hit the $20 million mark in fundraising, says both products advance the company's mission of creating minimally invasive tools that "revolutionize" neurosurgery—which Pearson describes as the "final frontier," because it's been slower to adopt minimally invasive methods. Listen
"Neurosurgery is slow to change, because you're dealing with critical structures; it's life and death typically," says Pearson. "[Neurosurgeons] don't change fast; they expect a lot of results and a lot of science, so innovative companies have a challenge. You need to prove it." Listen
In a market that is underserved "in a huge way," Pearson believes the company is, indeed, proving it: 14 of the top 20 pediatric neurosurgery hospitals in the U.S. News and World Report Best Children's Hospitals survey use the Myriad. The company expects BrainPath to have at least equally impressive results.
"For those of us that do minimally invasive surgery, these are the types of tools we've been looking for to better do what we do. We've been constrained in the past, in part, by having tools that were meant to be used with open [surgery] techniques," says Young. "When this company came to me with their devices, I said 'this is exactly what I've been looking for to do what I want to do.'" Listen
Remaining tight-lipped about product details, Pearson acknowledges "we've got our hands full" with the company's pipeline. While NICO's tools help make tumors seemingly "disappear," company leaders say it's not magic, but a commitment to giving surgeons the tools they've long needed to maneuver the most delicate matter in the human body.