Walking down the aisle of a home improvement store searching for spray foam to fix a crack in his insulation, Dr. Tim Showalter conceived his million-dollar idea.
Showalter had recently returned to his alma mater to serve as a radiation oncologist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and one thing he noticed almost immediately was the high volume of patients he was seeing for cervical cancer.
Like most in the medical field, he was compelled to alleviate his patients’ suffering, even though options are often limited when treating cancers. So, he focused on something within his control: gauze.
“I was frustrated by the tools I had to take care of them,” Showalter, a 2004 graduate of UVa Medical School, told The Daily Progress. “The gauze packing at the end of the procedure is not only uncomfortable to perform but it can be incredibly uncomfortable and painful for patients.”
That’s where the spray foam comes in.
Showalter combined his fascination for oncology and brachytherapy with his “tinkering mind” to create a gel that could replace the packing gauze. He worked in collaboration with UVa’s Biomedical Engineering Department and Licensing & Ventures Group as well as scientists at Virginia Tech.
With the foam’s protective properties and design as the inspiration, Showalter and his team dedicated the next 10 years to producing the BrachyGel Vaginal Hydrogel Packing System, which received approval as the first product in its class last year from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is expected to start being used in treatments by the end of March.
Showalter was recently recognized as the 2023 Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year by UVa for BrachyGel.
“Dr. Showalter’s research, and his ability to turn that research into a product available to patients nationwide, is helping women with cervical cancer and their families during a very difficult time,” said UVa President Jim Ryan in a statement announcing the honor.
Using the gel is first and foremost meant to decrease patients’ pain and discomfort, but clinical trials have suggested it is also easier to use than traditional gauze.
“I had this great experience in a clinical trial where a patient said directly to me that they were so pleased by the gel and preferred that over the gauze,” said Showalter. “They had no idea I was the one doing the research.”
“For me, it’s really great to have the recognition for the whole team behind this at UVa,” Showalter continued. “The award is adding some closure and giving us an opportunity to get the colleagues all together at the Rotunda to celebrate what was a big focus for us in the past decade.”
A few years into this venture, while simultaneously working as an associate professor and radiation oncologist for UVa, Showalter realized he was going to need a way to allocate more time and resources to studying BrachyGel. He also needed to secure grant money from the National Institute of Health. The obvious solution was to start his own company.
With no prior business or entrepreneurial experience, Showalter founded Advaray in 2015. The medical device company dedicated to developing BrachyGel got its start in his basement via LegalZoom, a free online small business formation service.
After the product received approval in early 2023, CQ Medical acquired the startup in September. As a global manufacturer and distributor of radiotherapy and other cancer therapies, CQ Medical had the sales capabilities to get BrachyGel out of the lab and into clinics all across the United States and world.
The treatment will be available by the end of the first quarter of 2024, according to Showalter, and some medical sites are already placing orders for the gel.
Though his work with BrachyGel is coming to an end, Showalter isn’t quite finished yet. Taking courses on the side at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to obtain a Master of Business Administration, Showalter joined ArteraAI, a California-based health care tech firm, in December as chief medical officer.
“The Advaray experience made me realize how much of an impact I could have and translating some of that medical experience and knowledge into an industry setting to build products to help cancer patients,” said Showalter. “This single product led me to AI.”
ArteraAI developed a precision artificial intelligence system to curate a personalized treatment plan for individuals with prostate cancer as well as predict patient outcomes. The company is now exploring an entirely different realm of medicine than what takes place in hospitals or labs, but Showalter said he loves working with experts outside of his own field so that, together, they can make a bigger impact to help patients.
“It’s so amazing to get to be a cancer specialist and help patients,” said Showalter. “But what I really like about being part of Advaray and ArteraAI is that I have the potential to be a part of something that changes the face of medicine or even just makes a procedure a little less painful for patients going through it.”