PEI start-up targets risk of body piercing with cardiology technology

Charlottetown, PEI  When his 12-year-old daughter, Michaella, complained about an infected pierced ear from the backseat of the family car in 2002, wondering aloud why the nails from piercing guns weren’t designed to dispense anti-infective medicine from the inside out, Norman Silber’s wheels started to turn. Fast forward 15 years, and Michaella’s idea for an antiseptic delivery vehicle is on track to revolutionize the piercing industry, thanks to cutting-edge work by Mitacs researchers.

Silber is a professor of law at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. and a summer resident of PEI. He shared Michaella’s brainstorm with long-time friend and cardiologist Mark Nathan, and together, the three came up with a novel design to minimize infection, deformities, and pain in human piercing. “We essentially integrated my daughter’s idea of injecting slow release antiseptics or other agents at the time of piercing with proven technology used by cardiologists,” he explained. 

In 2016, they launched a start-up called BioPierce Canada Ltd., based in Souris, and are working in collaboration with Mitacs researchers at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) School of Sustainable Design Engineering to develop the first-of-its-kind technology.

Estimated at $722 million, the human piercing industry is a growing market. Ear lobe piercing in particular is commonplace among women, with those who already have piercings numbering in the billions — and several millions more get their ears pierced each year, said Silber. According to studies in journals including the American Journal of Otolaryngology and the Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35 percent of individuals with pierced ears had one or more complications — ranging from localized infections or skin reactions to bacterial infections, traumatic tears and even viral hepatitis — and 15 percent require some professional attention.

The BioPierce invention is inspired by the technology used by cardiologists when inserting stents. By customizing an open source 3D printer, researchers are working to print small tissue scaffolds or “medicated sleeves” from gel-like synthetic substances (biomaterials) that slowly degrade in the body. The sleeves are applied to a piercing instrument and once inside human tissue they start to release active substances to promote healing, reduce pain, and deter infection.

“The original concept was to reduce the rate of infection significantly, but it has blossomed from there,” said Silber, “to include novel ornamental possibilities in humans.” He notes that the provisionally patented invention also has the potential to reduce infection and promote healing when animals (including domestic pets, livestock, and wildlife) undergo tagging or microchip implantation.

Ali Ahmadi, Assistant Professor at UPEI’s School of Sustainable Design Engineering, is supervising Mitacs researchers as they work to advance the BioPierce technology. One of their primary challenges is to ensure the device is versatile enough to work with more than one type of piercing instrument, he said. “The overall idea is that there is a pin or stud that enters the body and we are essentially covering that pin with a drug-emitting biomaterial,” he explained, adding that “The idea is to print on-demand according to exact specifications of the piercing instrument.”

The first BioPierce prototypes are expected to be ready for field testing this winter and will use PLGA or (poly lactic-co-glycolic acid) as the structural biomaterial, a substance already approved by Health Canada for other applications. The company is working with consultants to determine which applications to target first. 

In addition to marrying the technology with existing piercing equipment, including the insertion of conventional human piercing posts, pet ID chips and livestock tags, Mitacs researchers may move on to develop other groundbreaking piercing methods proposed by the company. In the future, BioPierce inventions could be used to add dye to or change the shape of the tissue. For example, pre-defined shapes such as a star, cross, or square could be incorporated in piercings to serve ornamental purposes.

According to Silber, BioPierce Canada aims to have its first product commercially available in three or four years. Support from Mitacs is vital, he added. “Mitacs is a terrific springboard,” he said. “Researchers at the University advance their educational mission and we benefit from technology development. It’s a harmonious fit.”

Ahmadi, whose long-term goal is to work on ‘smart’ implants, says the opportunity to work on commercializing a groundbreaking piercing technology is extremely exciting for his students. “We’re collaborating with industry to solve real problems,” said Ahmadi. “Our graduate students gain valuable, real-world training with the added benefit of knowing they’re helping to make a difference in the world.”

Quick facts:

  • Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 17 years.
  • Mitacs internships connect companies and organizations with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who apply their specialized expertise to research challenges.
  • Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, Mitacs builds partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada. Open to all disciplines and all industry sectors, projects can span a wide range of areas, including manufacturing, business processes, IT, social sciences, design and more.
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