May 182011
Collage of several of Gray's muscle pictures, ...

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The sign on the door at the renovated tobacco warehouse reads “Physcient.” Inside are a few rooms that, depending on where you look, seem like an artist’s studio, a machine shop or a natural history museum. A lathe stands next to a drill press; along other walls are vises, huge enamel-red C-clamps, microscopes and plywood frames covered in electronics. But there are also reed-woven sculptures of insects called water boatmen hanging on the walls, along with glass-fronted boxes holding preserved flying dragon lizards. Casts of human rib bones are scattered on tables. A huge cast of a fearsome pair of fish jaws rests on a row of books.

Physcient is, in fact, a medical technology company. But its décor speaks to the exceptional careers of its co-founders, Hugh Crenshaw and Charles Pell. They both got their start studying biomechanics — how creatures fly, swim and crawl. Mr. Pell built models of muscles and fish heads. Dr. Crenshaw earned his Ph.D. figuring out how single-celled creatures swim. And over the past 20 years they’ve profitably translated their understanding of biomechanics into inventions, from robotic submarines to pill sorters.

Now they’re turning their attention to the world of surgery. The instruments that surgeons use today, they argue, were invented before biomechanics became a mature science. They work against the physics of the body, instead of with it. “The technologies remain remarkably unchanged,” said Dr. Crenshaw. “Maybe we can do better.”

Dr. Crenshaw and Mr. Pell are starting with a kinder, gentler rib spreader. Surgeons often treat the broken ribs and other painful side effects of open heart surgery as inevitable. But Dr. Crenshaw and Mr. Pell have invented a new kind of rib spreader that takes into account how bones can bend, rather than break. Their preclinical studies on pigs suggest that it causes far less damage.

If it turns out to work as they hope, the inventors will turn their attention to other tools of the trade. “The entire surgical tray is going to be transformed,” said Mr. Pell.

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