Thomas Fogarty, M.D., has made tinkering an art form.
In recognition of 40 years of successful noodling with medical devices, the 66-year-old vascular surgeon was honored with the prestigious Lemelson-MIT lifetime award for innovation and invention late last month.
"If you can identify the problem and focus enough, you'll always find a way to solve the problem," Fogarty said on the eve of receiving the award at a black-tie ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Established by inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy and administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the award carries a $500,000 prize that Fogarty says he will give to a charitable foundation he is establishing to encourage and reward people who find inventive solutions to daily clinical problems.
Fogarty has already done more than his fair share on that front.
He is best known for dreaming up an eponymous catheter that is used in vascular surgery more than 300,000 times a year. Introduced in 1963, the Fogarty balloon embolectomy catheter lets doctors remove clots from blood vessels without major surgery. Fogarty, an avid fisherman, built the prototype of the device by attaching the fingertip of a latex glove to a diagnostic catheter using fine thread, some strong glue and fly-tying sleight of hand.
Doctors slide the catheters, with their balloons deflated, past the blood clots. After inflating the balloons to fill the vessels, doctors withdraw the catheters, taking the clots with them.
The embolectomy catheter changed vascular surgery forever, ushering in a new age of minimally invasive techniques.
"Young residents who train now think it's just part of the arsenal--it's like asking for a silk suture," says Joseph Cunningham, M.D., a vascular and cardiac surgeon at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. "But it was dramatic to me."
A contemporary of Fogarty's, Cunningham was in surgical training at Parkland Hospital in Dallas when the embolectomy catheter hit the operating room. "It revolutionized overnight how we approached these problems of clots in arteries. Before the invention . . . we used to have to operate on patients with long incisions and directly open the arteries and do a much more major brand of surgery."
The Fogarty catheter laid the groundwork for the entire field
of minimally invasive treatments using inflatable catheters, such as angioplasty.
Fogarty has a remarkable batting average that he attributes to focusing on significant and unsolved clinical needs. "I identify a clinical problem that's not handled well or at all,"
A recent invention is the aortic stent-graft for the minimally invasive repair of life-threatening aneurysms.
His inventions have been seeds for more than a dozen companies, and as an entrepreneur he has helped commercialize scores of other people's ideas. All told, Fogarty has founded or co-founded more than 25 start-ups. Many were later acquired by such medical device giants as Guidant Corp., Boston Scientific Corp. and Johnson & Johnson.
He's working on several new projects, including technologies to treat obesity and more easily diagnose sleep disorders.
A very wealthy man, Fogarty says he keeps inventing because filling real medical needs is its own reward.
"It obviously ain't about the money," he says. "I enjoy doing it."