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Matthew MacEwan: Future neurosurgeon, inventor, businessman

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 5, 2012 - When Matthew MacEwan came to the fork in the road, he took it.

At 30, MacEwan is a Washington University medical student who is simultaneously pursuing a doctorate in biomedical engineering and the inventor of a possible medical breakthrough to speed surgical healing. Plus, he recently embarked upon an attendant business venture.

MacEwan had an interest in biomedicine as well as math and engineering as far back as high school, which presented him with a quandary when he entered college.

"I didn't quite know how to put all the areas together," he said.

The dilemma was soon resolved when he discovered that Case Western Reserve University, "almost in his backyard" in Cleveland, offered a biomedical engineering program.

Everything Falls Into Place

Just as he had in high school, MacEwan excelled at Case Western, which he attended on a full scholarship. He was always, he said without a hint of bombast, a straight-A student who needed no prodding from his father, a civil engineer, or his mother, a grade school teacher who became head of a college preparatory middle school.

With his rangy build, direct manner and quiet intensity, MacEwan excelled in athletics as well as academics. He was recruited to play golf and baseball in college, but he was drawn to the university's laboratory; sports had to take a backseat to other ambitions. He chose to study medicine and "fell in love" with research. After graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from Case Western, he again had to reconcile diverse interests.

"I was torn," MacEwan said, "then I stumbled upon a program where you could get a joint medical degree and a degree on the research side. It was another perfect fit for me. One of the best programs was here at Wash U. It's interesting how it all just kind of fell into place."

The pieces would continue to fall neatly.

In 2010, as MacEwan and several of his Washington University colleagues were doing lab work with synthetic nanofiber structures made of thin, flimsy materials, he experienced what he calls "a real 'aha' moment."

"One day, we made the material very thick," MacEwan said. "When we pulled it off the machine, it felt soft and flexible, like a chamois."

The cloth-like material was thick, but it was designed on a nanoscopic scale so small that each thread measures thousands of times smaller than the diameter of a single human cell. MacEwan recognized biological properties in the new material that could make it useful as a surgical mesh or wound dressing.

He began to envision a unique surgical tool.

"Matt is obviously a very bright, capable and insightful young man with a vision," said Dr. Wilson Z. "Zack" Ray, a neurosurgical fellow now at the University of Utah who collaborated with MacEwan on the development of the material while here. "He has the ability to think about things in a way that's not obvious to other people."

MacEwan wasn't certain that what appeared obvious to him would work, so he consulted several Barnes-Jewish Hospital surgeons. They quickly suggested more than a dozen possible uses for the newly developed polymer.

MacEwan and Jingwei Xie, a former postdoctoral researcher in engineering at Washington University who is now a senior scientist at Marshall University, invented the nanofiber surgical mesh, along with collaborators Younan Xia, the James M. McKelvey professor of biomedical engineering, and Ray. All continue to be involved with the project, along with newcomer Dr. Chris Schlanger.

The nanofiber mesh is expected to promote the rapid repair of brain and spinal cord injuries, as well as hernias, fistulas and other types of injuries. The material's malleability and consistency can make operations easier for surgeons. For patients, it can make for fewer post-surgical complications because it is not made of animal skin that's prone to rejection by the body and because it naturally degrades over time, leaving only the original, now-healed tissue.

'Guerrilla' Learning

Convinced that he had a biomed material unlike anything on the market, MacEwan was unsure of his next step. Then another piece fell into place.

As MacEwan toyed with the idea of starting a business as a vehicle for getting the new technology into the clinical world, he heard about the Olin Cup, a startup business plan competition sponsored by Washington University's Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

"I thought, 'Let's give it a shot'," MacEwan said. "I have vivid memories of sitting at my in-laws' dining room table writing out the initial business plan for NanoMed."

The plan to build and distribute nanofiber materials won the Olin Cup.

In short order, the new business had also won two more awards: the Licensing Executives Society Foundation's International Graduate Student competition in London, and the Idea to Product Global Competition in Stockholm. The winnings of more than $100,000, along with other investments and in-kind services, helped put NanoMed on a pretty fast trajectory.

"In six months with Olin, we talked with people in the business and biotech community -- venture capitalists, a patent attorney -- and I got a 'guerrilla' education in business," MacEwan said. "That's how we got to where we are today. At that point, I'd never had a business class."

"Matt is self-secure in his knowledge, but he's humble and eager to learn things he doesn't know in other fields," said Agnes Rey-Giraud, a former executive at Express Scripts, who is now MacEwan's business partner. "He reaches out for advice and assimilates it very fast, takes ownership and executes."

A Star Is Born

The lead product for NanoMed, now renamed Retectix, is DuraStar Dural Substitute, a surgical mesh that neurosurgeons, like MacEwan still plans to become, can use to close defects in the protective membrane covering the brain or spinal cord.

The first round of funding for the company is complete, along with DuraStar's animal trials. The next step is to test the nanofiber mesh in humans. Retectix is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials within the next six to 12 months to ensure that the materials are safe and effective.

MacEwan says he sees Retectix as either a unique manufacturer of the nanofiber materials or the platform for research and development of nanofabricated materials, products and devices. Perhaps the company will be sold to a bigger manufacturer. MacEwan did not set out to be a businessman, but he now sees his role as integral in bringing the materials to market.

An international patent is pending for the nanofiber surgical mesh and for several other things MacEwan has invented, including a type of electrode that allows control of human tissue and a spinal screw and rod system to stabilize the spine.

Wherever the future neurosurgeon cum entrepreneur goes, people are more than a little interested in the nanofiber mesh that may radically change the face of surgery.

An opera singer recently shared that her career ended because an operation using an existing surgical mesh left her with a fused diaphragm; a friend said his hernia operation was repeated three times because repair materials integrated poorly into his body and another friend had a long recovery following a neurosurgical procedure.

"He really should have given us a call so he could be the lead candidate for our product," MacEwan joked of his mentor and adviser, Ken Harrington, who received material to seal a membrane after subdural hematoma surgery. Harrington, director of the Skandalaris Center, calls MacEwan an exceptional young man who's a good scientist and a good entrepreneur.

"Not many people can do all that he does," Harrington said. "Matt is as smart as hell, very good with people, extremely well organized and he has the capacity to find ways to focus on what's most important first -- that's how he does all of these things simultaneously.

Family Ties

"Matt's wife and daughter are the center of his life," said Rey-Geraud. "He is very grounded and family-centered with great Midwestern values."

MacEwan's wife is Sarah, a former school psychologist who now devotes fulltime to caring for Ava, their 2-1/2-year-old daughter. The two met in high school and have been married since they graduated from separate colleges in 2004.

His parents, Peter and Kathie MacEwan, still live and work in the Cleveland area. His sister, Sarah, is following in her big brother's footsteps. She is a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Duke University.

"Our parents let us investigate and study whatever we wanted to," MacEwan said. "We had 100 percent support."

In the next two years, MacEwan will receive support from all quarters to complete his doctorate and his medical degree. He hopes to eventually spend time in the laboratory and the operating room, possibly using his invention to help his patients.

He may also continue in business; he simply refuses to limit his options.

"I will see how it all works together," he laughs. "No matter which iteration I pick -- clinician, researcher -- either way my goal and purpose will be to bring new, unique technology into the clinical space to advance patient care and treat a variety of diseases and problems.

"I'm not completely sure what the future holds."

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.