Innovate4Health
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Chile’s Levita: Using Magnets to Reduce Patient Pain in Surgery

By: Christina Huntzinger

Levita Magnetics is a Chilean-born medical startup that uses groundbreaking magnetic technology to perform minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries, leaving patients with fewer scars and faster recovery times.

Its founder, surgeon Dr. Alberto Rodríguez-Navarro, spent ten years working in an under-resourced public hospital in Chile. He noticed that incisions caused the most pain for surgical patients, which meant they stayed longer in the hospital and used more hospital resources. These patients also had a longer recovery time, which affected their ability to work, care for their families, and generally go about their lives. Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro realized that by reducing the number of incisions, and thus reducing the pain the patient experiences, he could make life better for patients and save hospitals money.

This insight led Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro to develop the Levita Magnetic Surgical System, which magnetically grasps and retracts organs in various types of abdominopelvic surgery. A magnetic retractor (clip) is placed inside the body and an external magnet is placed on the patient’s skin that can be moved to control that retractor inside the body. This reduces the number of incisions required for laparoscopic surgery and robotic-assisted surgery, and also reduces potential complications including infection or internal injuries.[i] Magnetic surgery is most commonly used for weight loss surgeries, gallbladder removal, colorectal procedures, and prostate removal. (A video demonstration of Levita’s procedure is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1rooxE2YM4).

Dr. Rodriguez-Navarro got the idea for magnetic surgery from one of his childhood pastimes. As a child, Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro and his brother enjoyed cleaning fish tanks with magnets, where they were able to clean the inside of the tank’s glass from the outside, without affecting the fish or disturbing their environment. Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro remembered this procedure when researching ways to reduce surgical incisions and pain for his patients, and developed a magnetic surgical incision prototype with his father, a mechanical engineer.

While the end product may look simple, as Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro explains, “there is an incredible amount of research behind it.”

Research and development are the core emphases of Levita Magnetics, especially as it worked to expand from Chile to Silicon Valley. Clinical research is a particular focus for Levita. All of Levita’s clinical studies are designed in the United States by academic surgeons and conducted in Chile following U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines. Levita is the first Latin American company to develop a new surgical product with the FDA, and the FDA has accepted all the data from Levita’s clinical trials conducted in Chile. Levita trains staff in Chile, and then takes its team of principal researchers from the United States to Chile to conduct the company’s studies. These Chilean trials are conducted in high-volume centers, making them fast and efficient. So far, over 300 patients have been involved in Levita’s clinical trials in Chile, with patients benefitting from Levita’s less-invasive technology.

Chile places a high value on innovation. The Global Innovation Index 2019 ranks Chile first out of 19 countries evaluated for innovation prowess in Latin America and the Caribbean.[ii] Chile enjoys a well-structured innovation policy environment. For instance, CORFO, Chile’s economic development agency, funds the well-known Start-Up Chile, a start-up accelerator that seeks to catalyze entrepreneurial activity in the country while demonstrating the importance of entrepreneurship to Chileans.[iii] Levita was a beneficiary of Chile’s aggressive efforts to support entrepreneurial startups. The Chilean government provided Levita a grant supporting the earliest stages of the company’s research, which was significant because the early research period is the riskiest. The government has also funded travel to the Stanford Research Institute for Chilean health professionals, understanding that training and supporting technical professionals would help to develop the growth of medical companies and startups. In the same way, the Chilean government also recognizes the importance of intellectual property (IP) protection for the benefit of Chilean health innovators.

The Importance of IP in Levita’s Product Development

While the Chilean government offers a robust start-up environment, when Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro first sought patent protection for Levita in 2009, Chile was not yet a member of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). The PCT is a multinational treaty with 146 signatory countries that allows an inventor to apply for a patent in one country and facilitates the process of receiving intellectual property protection in other signatory countries. It was only in 2011, two years after Levita received is initial patents, that Chile joined the Patent Cooperation Treaty. Thus, Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro initially applied for patent protection in Spain with the assistance of U.S. lawyers. Levita now has multiple patents granted in the United States, with a portfolio of others in process. The ultimate goal is to take Levita’s product and processes global, and as such one of the company’s first goals was to obtain FDA clearance, as the FDA provides the world’s highest standards for safety and efficacy.

Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro and his team have also protected Levita’s intellectual property through a mix of trademarks and trade secrets. The trademark for Magnetic Surgery was created specifically for Levita, as Levita was the first to trademark this type of medical procedure. Trade secrets also play a role in Levita’s intellectual property strategy, as patents do require public disclosure.

Levita is still in the early stages of commercialization, but the system is seeing considerable adoption among surgeons and demonstrating clear patient benefits, which predict market success. The work of Levita would not be possible without intellectual property protection, as patents and other forms of intellectual property protection are critical for fundraising and growth of the company. Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro emphasizes that “securing IP is one of the most important pieces for the development of this industry.”

The future impact of Levita

Bringing a high level of care in a cost-effective manner for both the patient and medical center motivates Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro’s work. He thinks back to his time working at a hospital in Chile, where he saw “surgical teams do fantastic things with very few resources, and once they have Levita’s technology, surgical efficiency and better patient outcomes will certainly increase.”

Levita’s team focuses on making all elements of a surgery work better for everyone. There is a significant public health benefit to the work that Levita does to make the healthcare process of surgery more efficient for all involved. In this way, Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro wants to see more conversion of innovations from Latin America to the United States and other developed countries. As it stands right now, he says, “innovations from Latin America are generally not brought often enough to the developed world.” Dr. Rodríguez-Navarro’s goal is to bring Levita’s revolutionary surgical procedures to hospitals everywhere, starting first in the United States and then expanding throughout Latin America and the globe, all facilitated by the benefits of robust intellectual property protections, in developed and developing nations alike.

[i] Homero Rivas et al., “Magnetic Surgery: Results From First Prospective Clinical Trial in 50 Patients” Annals of Surgery Vol, 267, №1 (January 2018): 88–93, https://doi.org/10.1097/SLA.0000000000002045.

[ii] Cornell University, INSEAD, and World Intellectual Property Organization, “The Global Innovation Index 2019: Chile,” (Cornell University, INSEAD, and World Intellectual Property Organization, 2019), https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_gii_2019/cl.pdf.

[iii] Jonathan Moed, “Start-Up Chile’s Impact 2010–2018: Inside The Revolutionary Startup Accelerator.” Forbes, November 19, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathanmoed/2018/11/19/start-up-chiles-impact-2010-2018-inside-the-revolutionary-startup-accelerator/.

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The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is a think tank focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.