Feb. 5, 2024
It was on a Saturday morning at Lowe’s in Charlottesville when Dr. Tim Showalter came up with the idea for an invention that will, very soon, be helping women all over the world who have cervical cancer.
The University of Virginia School of Medicine professor and oncologist at UVA Health was picking up a can of spray foam to repair insulation in his basement when a thought crossed his mind: What if he could replace the uncomfortable gauze and ballons that were being used during radiation treatments with something similar to the can of foam he was holding?
Showalter was performing more than 150 radiation procedures annually and was sick of seeing women suffer anymore than they had to. “I was frustrated with gauze and frustrated with the limitations of the balloon,” he said.
So there on aisle 51, Bay 18 of the home improvement store, Showalter began to brainstorm.
The UVA alumnus knew that a polyurethane-based material like the one in the insulation foam wouldn’t work, but what if he could create a different kind of foam?
Today, more than a decade later, such a foam exists – and patients everywhere will soon be benefitting from it.
Showalter’s BrachyGel Vaginal Hydrogel Packing System received U.S. Food & Drug Administration clearance last year as the first product of its class. It is expected to be in at least 50 hospitals by the end of the year, with international distribution commencing soon after.
Showalter recently sold his startup company, Advaray – which was founded to develop his product, BrachyGel – to CQ Medical, a global leader in healthcare innovations.
For all of this, Showalter has been selected as the 2023 Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year by UVA. The endowed award recognizes University inventors whose work is making a major impact on society.
“It’s not too often that an innovator can be the lead inventor and the co-founder of a company – leading the company to get FDA approval and then leading the acquisition of the company,” UVA Licensing & Ventures Group Executive Director Richard W. Chylla said. “The fact that Tim was able to do all of this is truly remarkable.
“Most important is that Tim’s invention is helping women with cervical cancer. This goes hand in hand with the mission we have here at LVG of improving lives.”
After deciding that it would be possible to replace the gauze and ballons with foam, Showalter connected with Timothy Long, a former polymer chemist at Virginia Tech. Long helped Showalter create a BrachyGel prototype, and students of UVA biomedical engineering professor David Chen then helped Showalter conceptualize a bag delivery system for the foam, which would also protect the bladder and rectum from hot spots of radiation.
In 2013, UVA LVG -- the intellectual property management and innovation commercialization organization for the UVA research enterprise – helped Showalter patent the new product.
Four years later, Showalter founded his startup company right out of -- you guessed it -- his basement.
The initial funding for Showalter’s prototype came from the Ivy Foundation, which supports biomedical innovation and translation research at the University.
“The really cool thing is that most of this happened at UVA with contributions from many around Grounds,” said Showalter, a Richmond native who lives in Charlottesville with his wife, Shayna, and their three children. “We performed early research in the cadaver lab and research imaging facilities at UVA. The clinical trial was designed by UVA biostatistician Gina Petroni, led by my radiation oncology colleague Dr. Kara Romano and administered by our clinical research staff. Federal and state grant funding provided significant research support to UVA. Having this all happening in and around the University made it more rewarding.”
The most gratifying moments for Showalter – a 2004 School of Medicine alumnus -- occurred during the UVA Health clinical trial when women volunteered that they preferred BrachyGel to gauze. Each patient enrolled in the trial received BrachyGel for half of their brachytherapy procedures and standard gauze packing for the other half.
“They would say, ‘Thank goodness it’s a BrachyGel day!” Showalter recalled.
Dr. Romano, who oversaw the trial, said it was wonderful to see how many of the patients were motivated to participate in the trial not only for their own experience, but also to help future women in their shoes.
“I think that was the most rewarding part of the whole processes for me – researching how we can make the cancer treatment experience better for our patients, and the patients also being willing to participate for the benefit of other women,” Romano said.
Romano called Showalter a “fantastic” colleague.
“He is positive, hardworking, thoughtful, and innovative,” she said. “He took BrachGel from concept to deliverable product in record time, and he developed a great team along the way. Tim is one of those unique leaders where when he succeeds, everyone wins – and in this case patients are number one.”
Showalter smiles when he thinks back to that fateful day at Lowe’s.
“My motivation in developing BrachyGel was to do what I could to make the experience more comfortable for patients and to simplify the procedure for physicians,” he said. “For an emotionally painful and anxiety-inducing procedure, improving one step of it represents forward progress.”
LVG’s 31st annual Innovator of the Year event will take place Thursday, Feb. 8, from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., at the Rotunda. It will include a talk from Showalter and a reception afterward. It is free and open to all UVA faculty, staff, students and community members. Click here to register.