The Palmaz Award: Celebrating Biomedical Innovation in the Alamo City

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In a place frequently remembered for the Alamo and River Walk, known to many as “Military City, USA,” and increasingly lauded as a hotbed of advances in cloud computing, there are creative and inventive minds making major scientific and technological advances – and not just at Rackspace and Geekdom.

The healthcare and biomedical sectors employ one of every six working people in San Antonio. BioMed SA is a local non-profit that aims to accelerate the growth of these industries and to establish San Antonio as a leader in healthcare and biosciences. A signature program of this organization is the Julio Palmaz Award for Innovation in Healthcare and the Biosciences, which serves to honor and spotlight forward-thinking individuals while raising the visibility and prestige of these fields in San Antonio.

Tonight, a pioneer in the national and international world of medicine will receive the 2012 Palmaz Award: Larry Miller, M.D., the inventor of the EZ-IO® Intraosseous Infusion System. Though originally from Michigan, Dr. Miller “got to San Antonio as soon as [he] could,” starting out in Baptist Hospital in 1973. An emergency room physician for more than 30 years, he sought to address a challenge frequently encountered in emergency medicine: the inability to deliver lifesaving fluids and medications intravenously due to collapsed or inaccessible veins.

Dr. Larry Miller, 2012 Palmaz Award Winner. Photo courtesy of BioMed SA

When a person incurs major injury or enters a state of shock, the body directs blood to the vital organs – brain, lungs, and heart – and slows circulation to the limbs. This natural response can make placing a traditional IV next to impossible. According to Dr. Miller, “20 percent of patients who arrive in the emergency room needing IVs can’t get them. That’s over six million patients a year.” Other conditions such as obesity, dehydration, drug use, and diseases such as cancer also inhibit vein access.

Enter the EZ-IO. The body’s largest non-collapsible vein is the intraosseous (IO) space, or the space inside of the bone. IO infusions are the quickest and most effective means of delivering liquids to a patient when traditional intravenous entry is unattainable. Before Dr. Miller’s invention, reaching the IO space was a difficult, painful process only possible in the soft bones of children. The EZ-IO is a tiny drill with a hollow needle that allows physicians to reach the IO space of patients of any age in less than 10 seconds and with minimal pain. This technology has been widely endorsed by such groups as the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Heart Association, and was recognized as the Wall Street Journal, which made Miller the winner of the 2008 Innovation Awards competition.

Other applications for the EZ-IO include the diagnosis and treatment of some cancers, bone marrow biopsies, and the treatment of cholera. After the recent earthquake in Haiti, Dr. Miller personally delivered 1,200 instruments to cholera treatment centers and trained doctors there how to use them. “People die of cholera for one reason: dehydration,” explained Dr. Miller. “You save their lives by getting fluid into their system. The EZ-IO is the ideal tool to treat cholera.” You can view the inspiring video about Dr. Miller’s trip to Haiti here on YouTube.

Dr. Julio Palmaz, inaugural Palmaz Award Recipient. Photo courtesy of BioMed SA

“It takes a lot of passion, drive, and persistence to develop solutions for unmet medical needs and then bring them to market, and that is exactly what our Palmaz Award was designed to recognize and celebrate,” Ann Stevens, president of BioMed SA, explained. Through alternately recognizing local and national trailblazers with the Palmaz Award, BioMed SA seeks to foster the exchange of ideas and facilitate interactions between scientists, engineers, researchers, and healthcare professionals.

BioMed SA developed the Palmaz Award in late 2005, shortly after the organization’s establishment. The award is named for Dr. Julio Palmaz, the world-renowned inventor of the balloon-expandable PALMAZ® Stent, a device that revolutionized cardiac care. Doctors across the world now place more than two million stents annually. Dr. Palmaz, a tenured professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, received the first Palmaz award in 2006.

Other past recipients boast equally distinguished accomplishments. The 2011 honoree, Dr. Leeroy Hood of Seattle, made discoveries that led to the sequencing of the human genome. UTSA Dean of Engineering C. Mauli Agrawal, Ph.D. received the award in 2010 for his work in the fields of tissue engineering, drug delivery, and orthopedic and cardiovascular biomaterials. In 2009, the honor went to prolific inventor Dean Kamen, whose creations include a groundbreaking new prosthetic arm, the first portable insulin pump for people with diabetes, and the Segway. Kamen also founded FIRST, a competitive nationwide robotics program designed to spark young people’s interest in science and technology, and to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists.

Motivated by Kamen, BioMed SA has sponsored a young FIRST robotics team since 2009 and helps put on the country’s largest FIRST competition, a three-day robotics and technology extravaganza, right here in San Antonio each year. The seventh graders will attend tonight’s Palmaz Awards dinner with their parents, seated at a table donated back to BioMed SA by HEB.

BioMed SA President Ann Stevens with Dr. Mauli Agrawal of UTSA, 2010 Palmaz Award Honoree, and Founding Chair of BioMed SA, Henry Cisneros. Photo courtesy of BioMed SA

In Dr. Miller’s opinion, BioMed SA has catalyzed significant positive change on the medical landscape of San Antonio by pulling people and resources together from a cross-section of the biomedical sector. Dr. Miller founded two companies in San Antonio: LifeQuest Medical Inc. in 1991 and Vidacare Corporation in 2001. “Biomed SA wasn’t in existence [at the inception of either of these ventures], so we ended up having to go to California for engineering, New York for financing, and Santo Domingo for manufacturing. We had a lot of good ideas but it didn’t seem like anybody was here to help us get started.” Fortunately, he noted, “BioMed SA is bringing together a network of people to help get ideas started.” The non-profit provides the critical mass necessary to launch many biotech endeavors by connecting professionals from various facets of the industry and “pulling all the parts together,” said Dr. Miller.

Kenneth Trevett, President and CEO of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and Chair of BioMed SA, explained that BioMed SA has started “serving as an ‘honest broker’ bringing people together to facilitate new initiatives and strengthen existing ones.” He elaborated on a new effort (led by BioMed SA Founding Chair Henry Cisneros and Executive Committee Member Dr. Steve Davis) to cultivate collaboration between individuals by establishing formal committees around the topics of diabetes, cancer, infectious diseases, neurosciences, and military medicine/regenerative medicine.

“Previously, you had to look to Silicon Valley or San Diego to find the hotspots of medical innovation,” said Dr. Miller. “That’s changing.” Trevett agreed, pointing to the BioMed SA common interest committees. “To my knowledge, no other city in the country is promoting this kind of integrative approach to research, product development and clinical care. And it is why San Antonio is not only a city with a rich history, but a community of tomorrow.”

Updated Friday, September 21, 2012:

Dr. Miller expressed his appreciation for BioMed SA in his award acceptance speech at the 2012 Palmaz Award dinner, saying, “Lastly, I’d like to thank BioMed San Antonio. This is exactly what we need. For supporting innovation, this is extremely important to the future of San Antonio. I just wish they had been there when we started. It would have saved us two years at least in development. You’re doing the right thing, I’m so proud of what you’re doing, and I totally support you.”

Dr. Larry Miller, BioMed SA President Ann Stevens, and BioMed SA Chair Ken Trevett at the 2012 Palmaz Award dinner on September 20, 2012. Photo by Miriam Sitz

Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]

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