As the nation’s opioid crisis continues to deepen, some analysts believe Minnesota’s medical device industry could play a significant part in solving the problem.
Multiple medical-technology players in the North Star State continue to develop alternate solutions for pain control and are expected to help alleviate misuse of the addictive painkillers — while also providing a healthy boost to Minnesota’s economy over the next decade.
Reversal of fortune
For a long time, the medical world considered medical devices second to opioids as an effective course for treating pain, notes Greg Molnar, an associate professor at and chairman of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Neurology. Now those roles have reversed, Molnar says, and that’s ramping up demand for neuromodulation devices — tools that treat pain by modifying the nervous system using electricity or targeted drug application.
“Neuromodulation can really handle pain, and that’s what can really zap out the drugs,” Molnar says. “The [nation’s] concentration of medical device companies is highest in the Twin Cities area, and a lot are neuromodulation based. So basically, the innovation for all those is starting here in this ecosystem.”
But the local economic impact of the spike in demand is expected to go even further, he notes, because other Minnesota companies build components for the devices, and the technology involved has huge potential for treating other issues besides pain – Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, addiction, epilepsy and incontinence, for starters.
“We need to address the volume of people with unmet needs in the neuromodulation space, so that’s going to grow tremendously,” Molnar predicts. “Ask big banks and investors ‘Where’s the growth market?’ Neuromodulation.”
In fact, reports Dr. Omid Souresrafil, Minnesota-based medtechs are developing or have developed some 80 percent of the neuromodulators in existence across the world. The CEO of Osseo-based startup SmartImplantSystems Inc. estimates the state already employs at least 5,000 people in the neuromodulation industry.
Addressing a nationwide crisis
Opioid-related deaths have been rising in the U.S. since the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies began marketing painkillers, such as Oxycontin, that weren’t initially considered addictive. Many patients remained dependent on the drugs long after their initial issue was resolved, and between 2000 and 2014 nearly a half-million Americans died from opioid overdoses, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When measured in 2015, the economic cost of the opioid crisis was $504 billion, and the additional costs of healthcare and substance abuse were $29.4 billion, according to statistics from the Council of Economic Advisors.
Minnesota alone logged at least 395 deaths and 2,074 nonfatal overdoses in 2016 due to opioids.
Now, the state’s medtechs are fighting back.
At Osseo-based startup SmartImplantSystems, Souresrafil and Molnar are hoping to get to market by 2020 the multimodal neuromodulator device they have developed. Molnar says he expects the neuropathic device to be effective in addressing the multiple forms of pain that can collectively plague post-operative and other patients, particularly in the back and the legs. The device was specifically designed to be an alternative to opioids.
“Neuropathic or chronic pain evolves from damage to the nervous system and becomes a change in how the brain processes sensory information,” he explains. “Opioids don’t do anything to touch that kind of pain, but other types of stimulation in the nervous system can crack the nut of neuropathic pain.”
Fridley-based Medtronic is similarly “investing heavily” in devices that can address chronic pain, says Dr. Marshall Stanton, president of the company’s Pain Therapies business. One such product is the Intellis, a tiny, multisensor pulse generator implanted in the back that can send a mild electric current to the vertebrae through use of a Samsung tablet. The company also offers training for physicians interested in countering their patients’ opioid addictions through use of Medtronic’s implantable drug pumps.
“Medtronic is trying to take a leadership position in the medical-device space in trying to help battle addiction,” Stanton says. “The problem as I see it is that so many patients — and even so many physicians — don’t know about these alternatives.”
Other medtechs across the state recently launching (or planning to launch) pain-control devices include St. Jude Medical, Smiths Medical, SpineThera Inc. and AtriCure Inc.
Supporting such medical-technology efforts is Medical Alley, a Golden Valley–based advocacy group that represents health-focused businesses around the state. Nearly three-quarters of Minnesota companies with neuromodulation products are involved with the organization, according to its vice president of intelligence, Frank Jaskulke.
Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Dayton recently proposed allocating $12 million in state funding and charging drug companies $20 million to help pay for opioid addiction prevention and treatments.
Perhaps the greatest instigator in driving demand for medtech pain-control devices across Minnesota is the fact that they are already largely accepted by the insurance world, according to Medtronic’s Stanton.
“These therapies are covered by Medicare, insurance and worker’s comp, so people have the ability to have [them] paid for,” Stanton says. “It’s just a question of getting physicians to understand these are options for treating chronic pain, and that people can come off of opioids.”