It may seem like science fiction, but Tigard company says soon doctors won't use needles

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Rick Stout, head medical officer for Bioject, describes the process of the company's needle-free injection devices.If you ask Rick Stout, the future of medicine is located in a small office building on Southwest Sandburg Street.

It’s there that Stout and his colleagues at Bioject Medical Technologies have been developing what they see as the solution to a major problem: Syringes with sharp, pointy needles.

For more than two decades, Bioject has been making needle-free injection systems. Being able to give vaccinations or inject medication without needles not only prevents disease, Stout argues, it also helps children — who can be terrified of needles — to not be afraid of doctors.

“If you are a doctor in most parts of the world, the second kids see these long, scary needles, they literally hide,” said the company’s president, Mark Logomasini. “You can’t explain enough to them how beneficial that shot is and have kids come out and welcome the opportunity. It’s too scary.”

Needles have long been the standard for injections, said Stout, the company’s chief medical officer, but they have also been the cause of serious problems through the use of contaminated needles and challenges with disposing of the syringes after use.

“We know that there are patients at home injecting themselves every day with various medications, and that needle goes in a milk carton under the sink and then in the garbage at the end of the week,” Stout said. “It’s a global problem.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Bioject device has no needle. Instead, it delivers liquid through a narrow, high-powered stream that penetrates the skin.

Change comes slowly

Instead of needles, Bioject’s devices are able to force medication into the skin using high-speed fluid.

Needle-free syringes are connected to an injector and pressed against the skin, where the medication is forced through a tube thinner than a human hair.

“In that syringe is $50 million worth of technology,” Logomasini said. “That’s the kind of investment that has gone into that product.”

With a soft hiss, mediation is delivered in less than a quarter of a second.

“They are faster, more reliable and also less painful,” Stout said. “By the time they are done making a joke with a child, the vaccination has been given, and they don’t realize it.”

The devices are also safer than needles because there’s no way to accidently prick yourself, Stout said.

“You can never spread infectious diseases with this,” Stout said, examining the small needle-less syringe. “There isn’t a way to spread it. If a child gets hold of this vial, they couldn’t re-use it. It has no value at all.”

It’s like something out of science fiction, he added.

“It’s very ‘Star Wars,’” Stout said. “It’s very creative and very new.”

Bioject’s devices have been used in Hollywood films. “Batman Begins” used one of Bioject’s devices to cure people of a brain-altering toxin.

“We’re pretty proud of that,” Stout said.

But changing old habits is hard. Doctors have been using needles to give injections for centuries, Stout said. Getting people to adopt a new technology can be a tough sell.

“It takes a long time for clinicians, doctors and nurses to convert to something different,” Stout said. “Once they start to convert, it becomes natural to them, but that takes time.”

The biggest hurdle for the company so far, Logomasini said, is the price.

“A needle costs about a nickel to make. Our device lasts forever, but each syringe costs about a dollar,” Logomasini said. “That’s a 20-fold difference. You have to be able to justify that.”

Logomasini said if injuries caused by needles were factored in, the cost between needle-free devices and traditional syringes is about even.

“The accidental injection or cross-contamination of an unintended patient with a dirty needle, or the potential of hepatitis or HIV are so much greater,” he said. “That cost is spread out and covered by insurance companies. Nobody ever sees that affect.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Rick Stout, head medical officer for Bioject, shows how a liquid is delivered through the skin of a patient with the company's needle-free injection device.

Global focus

Until a few years ago, the company employed about 100 people at its world headquarters in Tualatin.

From there, the company manufactured and sold devices all across the country.

But that changed in October 2011, Logomasini said, when the Federal Drug Agency issued warnings to people about not trusting needle-free devices to get flu shots.

The FDA said needle-free companies should run clinical trials on each vaccine to prove that its devices could be used safely in each instance.

It was a small change, but Logomasini said it has had big impacts.

“We went from 100 people in Tualatin to about 10 people in Tigard,” Logomasini said. “It turned the tables against Bioject and against vaccine companies. Most people don’t understand the drug development process. It’s a bit like shooting craps, blindfolded, and with only one dice. It is that hard to get something from the concept phase to commercial approval. So adding that additional element of risk for needle-free technology was enough.”

Today, Logomasini said the company does about half of its work outside of the country in Africa, South America and Asia.

“There’s an old Yogi Berra quote ‘Hit ‘em where they ain’t,’” Logomasini said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

The company works with groups such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Frankly, the regulatory hurdles here are at a point where we needed to go to places where needle-stick injuries are recognized as the public health catastrophe that they are,” Logomasini said

Bioject wants to corner a very specific market, Logomasini said: Parts of the world where the risk of needle-stick infections is high, but also with a growing middle class able to afford the devices.

“On the surface you ask, ‘How big can that market actually be?’ But the percentage basis of your adoption rate can be zero-point-something percent there, and the sales volume can be huge.”

This month the company announced that it would begin selling its devices in China due to an agreement with a pharmaceutical drug company with ties in the area.

“We have an office in Kazakhstan, we have an office in Nigeria. That’s where the emphasis is right now,” Logomasini said.

Clinicians are able to inoculate whole villages without the risk of cross-contamination, and the needle-free environments help children be more comfortable, Stout said.

“I’d like to see the company continue to grow globally,” he said. “We have been pretty focused on the U.S. market for many years, but now I do lot of my work in India, Africa, Singapore, etc.”

In the next 10 years, Stout said needle-free syringes will become more popular and will help to keep people all around the world healthier.

“It’s a disaster,” Stout said. “We have to get rid of them. We have to get them out of these high-risk areas.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Ravinder Singh performs quality control on Bioject devices at its office.

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