This Polymer Could Provide a Breakthrough in the Opioid Epidemic

21MedTech in Akron is attracting national attention for its innovative drug-delivery material.

As the opioid crisis persists across the United States, people from all walks of life are pitching in to address the problem—from engineers, doctors and scientists, to the business community, teachers and everyday citizens. One company, 21MedTech in Akron, is focusing on preventing further growth in addiction rates by developing a polymer mesh material that can deliver pain relief to the source without the need for opioids.

“This represents a huge opportunity to address a crippling nationwide crisis,” said Arthur Alfaro, CEO of 21MedTech. “People everywhere are searching for answers to the impact addiction is having on our communities. We’re focused on the prevention of future problems with our technology so that, hopefully, we can help others avoid the risk for addiction altogether.”

According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and between 8 and 12 percent develop an “opioid use disorder.” Of those, an estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin. By eliminating the need to prescribe opioids, doctors can eliminate the pathway to addiction for many people.

“We’re offering real, effective pain treatment for post-surgery recovery. The critical period for pain management is at least 72 hours. Most doctors will say if you can control pain the first 72 hours, you’ve got it beat for two reasons,” said Alfaro. “First of all, pain starts to subside after that time period. It’s also been shown that if you can’t effectively manage pain in the first three days, the patient is less able to tolerate pain thereafter. We’re treating their pain beyond this critical period.”

The technology is a degradable polymer mesh developed by Dr. Matthew Becker, PhD., the W. Gerald Austen Endowed Chair in the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering at The University of Akron. Becker was able to synthesize CYPREXTM polyester urea, a biodegradable polymer made from amino acids. Becker discovered that polyester urea does not produce acidic byproducts when it breaks down in the body, unlike most degradable polyester materials which lead to inflammation and can interfere with the delivery of the drug.

The material, a film or mesh with holes in it to enable the passage of fluid, is implanted into a wound before it’s closed by a doctor. Once the film is absorbed, it emits time-release non-opioid pain medicine into the bloodstream to control the pain. The mesh is designed to stay put and continually bathe the area with non-opioid relief for roughly 4-5 days.

21MedTech is currently housed in Bounce Innovation Hub, formerly the Akron Global Business Accelerator, an Ohio Third Frontier partner in Akron. The company has already raised about $11 million—including $2 million from Third Frontier as part of a statewide effort to address the opioid problem—which will support development and testing of its high-impact technology. The team is working on the project alongside pharmaceutical heavyweights Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson.

“We’re thrilled at the response and support we’ve gotten thus far, and we really think it’s a testament to the potential of our technology to help address a problem that’s devastating communities across the U.S.,” said Alfaro. “We couldn’t be more excited to work with these big- name players to get this product to market.”

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