NextUp: The Penn Spinout Inventing the Next Generation of Surgical Tools

Verix Health is developing a suite of steerable surgical needles to enable minimally invasive treatment of hard-to-reach cancer tumors.

Sasha Schrode is the president and chief executive officer of Verix Health. / Courtesy

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Who: Mark Yim is the director of Integrated Product Design and a professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania. As an expert in the field of robotics, Yim, several years ago, served as a consultant on a project for the Department of Defense (DOD) where he was charged with designing a technology capable of navigating long narrow passages from a distance. He later realized that the technology he designed for the DOD project could also be applied to the field of healthcare.

Yim had designed an easy-to-use mechanical device that can travel inside human tissue and make sharp turns. In 2016, he founded Verix Health, formerly known as Greppo Technologies, with PCI Ventures at Penn to further develop the technology for broader use in healthcare. The company was incubated at the Pennovation Center in Philadelphia.

What: Building on Yim’s invention, Verix Health spun out of Penn as a medical device startup focused on developing unique surgical tools that can be steered in difficult-to-access areas of the human anatomy, allowing minimally invasive diagnosis and treatment of cancer tumors. The company plans to develop a suite of steerable, diagnostic and therapeutic tools for solid-organ cancers.

Verix Health currently has two devices in the pipeline. The company’s first device is a tool designed to gain access to lung nodules for the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer.

The second device is a percutaneous tool that allows access to the abdominal cavity and lungs via a needle-puncture of the skin, as opposed to more invasive open surgery methods.

“These devices will be helpful for patients with lung cancer, or cancers of the kidney or liver. Physicians need to safely gain access to these patients’ tumors for diagnosis and treatment,” said Verix Health president and chief executive officer Sasha Schrode. “Our technology will enable greater access in a minimally invasive way.” 

When: In October 2019, Verix Health closed an $8 million Series A financing round led by Ajax Health with participation from Aperture Venture Partners and Western Technology Investment. The company is using the funds to support ongoing research and development activities as it prepares its product line for commercialization.

Schrode says the company has recruited a world-class team of engineers that have expertise in steerable devices and precision medicine. That team is now going to be tasked with building out the company’s research and development plan to get the device to the design phase by the end of 2020. By the end of 2022, Verix hopes to have two devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration for commercialization.

Why: The current standard of care for liver tumor removal involves the use of microwave ablation systems that include straight, non-steerable devices that destroy liver tumors using microwave technology heat. These rigid devices make it difficult to access cancer lesions in the upper dome of the liver where interventional radiologists must often navigate around the ribs and avoid puncturing the lungs.

“A lot of cancer patients have lesions that are unfavorably located in a sensitive area of the body. They may be next to a sensitive structure, near a blood vessel, or too close to an area that can put a patient at a high risk of complications if we try to gain access to those lesions with a straight device,” Schrode explained. “What our device does is enable physicians to actively navigate the anatomy to gain access to the lesion in a minimally invasive way. Our goal is to provide physicians with better tools to access lesions that may not have been accessible otherwise.”

What it means: Verix Health has one of few steerable needles on the market that can create and follow a precise path through soft tissue with high maneuverability. The device has the potential to reduce trauma to patients, leading to fewer complications, shorter hospital stays and better outcomes for the patient. If interventional radiologists adopt Verix’s steerable needle for liver tumor removals, the device has the potential to become the standard of care for other similar minimally invasive general surgery procedures.