Showing Some Spine

The Inventive Career of Wake Forest Neurosurgeon, Charles Branch, Jr., M.D.

The walls in Charles Branch’s office can’t accommodate all of his framed patents (40 and counting). Some are stacked on the floor, others lean against the wall. There’s no time to rest on his laurels – he’s more interested in what’s next. Although Branch isn’t ready to talk about his latest innovation in neurosurgery just yet, he’s clearly excited about its potential.

“We’ve already been awarded the first patent,” says Branch. “The second is coming up. Next we develop our prototype and clinical trials to see if we can make a product better than what’s out there now.”

Charles Branch, Jr., MD, professor and chair of the department of neurosurgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, is a new breed of scientist: part clinician, part investigator, and full-bore innovator.

As a young neurosurgeon just starting out at Wake Forest Baptist, Branch developed a reputation for ingenuity in spine surgery, cervical and lumbar disc disease, spinal stabilization, and spinal tumors. His specific area of expertise — spinal fusion — was a bit off the beaten path for neurosurgery. That’s because in the early 1990s spinal fusions fell under the domain of orthopaedic surgeons. But Branch felt he had something to contribute to the field. As a lifelong tinkerer, he could clearly see areas where surgery could be improved through new tools and techniques. He began to develop approaches to spine treatment that had never been attempted before.

“I’m a curious guy,” says Branch. “So most of my work starts with the experiences I have in the operating room and figuring out how we can make the procedure safer, quicker, easier and more minimally invasive.”

Industry partners know a good thing when they see it. After Branch started lecturing and publishing articles on his new techniques (he has published 20 book chapters and over 40 manuscripts in peer reviewed journals), he started fielding calls from medical device companies.

Medtronic (then Sofamor Danek) came calling in the late 1990s. The world’s largest medical technology company needed a specialist to help develop their spine surgery products. Branch had developed two concepts that particularly interested Medtronic: 1) interbody fusion grafts and instrumentation, and 2) the QuadrantTM expandable minimally invasive retractor. Interbody fusion grafts and instrumentation offer an advanced spine fusion technique for patients who need surgery to correct a rupture, deformity or degeneration of lumbar discs in the spine. The Quadrant retractor minimizes incisions and tissue trauma during spine surgery, reducing operating time, post-operative recovery time, scarring and pain.

Medtronic teamed Branch with its engineers, and they set to work. For the interbody fusion grafts and instrumentation concept, they developed a set of tools that allowed surgeons to do a spine fusion the same way every time. These tools led physicians through the steps, allowing a surgeon who was unfamiliar with or intimidated by an interbody spine fusion to perform it safely and consistently without having to go through a huge learning curve. The kit included an implant prepared from bone, a holder to secure the implant, instruments for preparing an intervertebral space for receiving the final fusion, and other instruments like scrapers and hammers for driving the implants into position.

Within six months, trial kits were sent out to physicians across the country. When the time came to return the kits, surgeons didn’t want to give them up.

“That’s when we knew we had something big,” says Branch.

The collaboration on the Quadrant retractor was equally successful, if not more so. The Quadrant retractor tool enables access to the spine, insertion of the implant, and fixation, all in one system, using minimally invasive techniques. The device is now being used all over the world. Both innovations have become mainstays for Medtronic’s product lines.

“The partnership just grew from there,” says Branch. “We moved from bone to absorbable implants, and then we developed an interbody device with the potential for less neural retraction. This was an opportunity to get things that I thought were important translated into meaningful clinical tools.”

Branch’s innovative thinking has also sparked several major developments within his own institution:

“The university environment provides the freedom to experiment with new ideas and the resources to explore their potential,” says Branch. “At the same time, industry partners have real-world needs that can quickly transform ideas into reality.”

Branch moves fluidly between the two worlds, but always returns to the same source for inspiration.

“We have many resources all around us that can lead to creativity,” says Branch. “But ultimately, it’s your mind, the questions you ask, the ‘how can this be done better?’ questions. That’s what truly drives innovation.”

Contact Wake Forest Innovations to schedule a meeting with Dr. Charles Branch or other inventors at Wake Forest to discuss how we can help advance your organization’s new product innovations.

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