Governing Magazine: Roanoke’s Reinvention: How a Small City Shifted Its Economy

Casey Lewisbiomedical, Carilion Clinic, Economic Development, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, innovation

Carilion hospital building

It’s always cool when scientists are playing with skulls. They keep a supply of plastic skulls on hand at a laboratory in Roanoke, Va., where researchers are working on a project to address a flaw with brain shunts, thin plastic tubes that neurosurgeons implant to remove excess fluid. They come equipped with what’s basically an on/off switch, but doctors don’t necessarily know when to flip it. Inside the darkness of the skull, there’s no way to measure flow through the shunt, so it’s impossible to tell if it’s working properly unless it fails. By that time, the patient may have suffered brain damage.

The researchers in Roanoke have been working on a device to capture and send measurements, sending out alerts when there are problems. Even if they work through the technical difficulties, it will take years to get the product approved and out to market, but it has obvious life-saving potential. The initial concept of doing something about brain shunts came from clinicians who were tired of flying blind and seeing patients suffer. The lab is run by Carilion Clinic, a sizable health-care system based in Roanoke. The brain shunt device is among dozens of research projects that have been suggested by doctors and nurses since its innovation department started up a few years ago. “They are seeing things up front that aren’t working properly,” says Aileen Helsel, Carilion’s director of innovation. “They really are the best people to come up with the solutions, because they’ll know exactly what they need from a new product.”

It makes sense for innovations to grow out of problems, with line workers knowing they need new tools and wanting help in getting them. It doesn’t usually happen that way, however. The labs that do the research and the hospital systems that treat patients are usually entirely separate worlds. In Roanoke, that’s starting to change. Roanoke, a city of just under 100,000 people that lies between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains in western Virginia, is turning into an impressive biotech hub, with top researchers, health providers and academic institutions all working together.

Read the full article in Governing Magazine.