PEORIA — Dr. Bob Smouse stood at the exhibit like a proud father peering through the glass at a newborn baby.
His invention, born on a napkin in his office at OSF HealthCare in Peoria, was among the items on display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum's "10 Medical Inventions That Changed the World" collection that closed last month.
ConvertX was one of the stars of that show, in a room that included vintage optics (among which are Ella Fitzgerald's glasses, on loan from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), Florence Nightingale's nurse jacket, the first heart bypass machine, a sample of the first batch of penicillin mass-produced by the Ag Lab here in Peoria in 1944, and much more.
"I hadn't seen this exhibit before, and seeing it now for the first time I was flattered, and humbled to be a part of it," Smouse said a few weeks back. "Quite honestly, a little embarrassed, too. So much history and achievement in here. It's amazing."
Smouse is an interventional radiologist turned medical technology CEO. The Dunlap resident teaches at University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria and is the CEO of BrightWater Medical, a California-based company he founded to build and market the device he created, with some major financial backing by OSF Ventures.
He won FDA approval in 2016 for ConvertX to be used in kidney procedures. History was made in 2017, when it was used in a procedure for the first time at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center. Now he's just won FDA approval on a second ConvertX for usage in biliary procedures.
So here's what all that means: Conventional way, when the ureter (the duct that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder) is blocked by a stone, scar tissue, tumor or some other challenging obstruction, repairs are made with two separate surgeries. A lot of those patients are dealing with cancer.
In the first surgery, a catheter is inserted that drains urine from the kidney to an external bag. Up to 14 days later doctors conduct a second surgery, in which the catheter is removed and a stent is placed in the blocked urethra to allow urine to drain past the blockage.
"The conventional method has been used for 50 years," said Smouse, 64. "But it's invasive procedures that require sedation, time off from work, radiation and the risk and pain. So we've invented a device that converts an internal-external drain into an internal drain in a single, one-hour procedure.
"I kept seeing my patients come in for two procedures. I thought about what we could do to change the patient's outlook. I was sitting in my office at OSF, between cases, thinking about what type of device we would need to be able to do everything in one surgery.
"I started drawing on a napkin. And it was just there.
"I called an engineer friend I knew and asked him, 'Can you make this?' He said yes. Now he's our engineer at BrightWater."
Smouse says 600 of those kidney-based ConvertX surgeries have been completed so far, nationwide. That also means patients have been spared from 600 additional surgeries. Each device and procedure costs $1,500. By comparison, each second conventional surgery would cost $4,000.
Peoria surgeon Dr. Timothy Whitehead did the very first one here.
"(Whitehead) called me and said 'We have a case. We're going to use it,' " Smouse said. "I was on pins and needles. Well, it went perfect. There were some celebrations going on afterward.
"And as we sit here at this exhibit today, he just did another one at OSF (around mid-April). So Dr. Whitehead did the very first one ever, and the most recent one, both at OSF. We launched a pilot program for the device and it's in 60 hospitals now nationwide.
"You know, I've never actually done the procedure myself. When this device was developed, it caught on, and it quickly became evident that I needed to run BrightWater Medical full time."
Smouse says Spain, the United Kingdom and other countries are interested in it. And now his biliary version is catching attention.
The biliary version is the same device used in the kidney version, but shorter in length. The 2019 newbie is actually the one that is on display at the museum.
That device is for patients with severe bile duct blockages or difficult anatomies (like gastric bypass or liver transplants) who face infection, sepsis or injury to the liver.
Under conventional methods, if the biliary blockage is managed with a drain, it's a two-surgery procedure and the drain must be exchanged every two to three months for life.
With the ConvertX, it's one and done.
"I got a call today about the biliary device, from a doctor at USC who says there is a patient candidate there for the procedure," Smouse said. "But I had to tell him this second device isn't quite ready yet, we'll need another five or six weeks before we can produce it."
But FDA approval is in hand, so that historic first surgery is approaching.
"Going through the FDA for approval for the second device — the biliary — was a nervous thing," Smouse said. "It was a different branch of the FDA that had to do that approval.
"When word came (on March 25) I was at our house in Dunlap and it was so exciting to get that news. Now we're moving forward to make that device available for biliary cases.
"And we're not done. We have additional devices on the drawing board. We're going to make them for pediatric sizes.
"That moment, when we got FDA approval and saw the first use of the device in 2017, right here at OSF, it was the base of the mountain for us.
"We still have a long climb ahead."
Dave Eminian covers the Rivermen and Chiefs for the Journal Star, and writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.