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Rochester startup's device takes the guesswork out of common medical procedure

Dr. John Aho and Sasha Gentling's startup company, Pneumeric, based in Rochester, has a simple solution to improve how medical teams treat patients' emergency condition of pneumothorax brought on by a collapsed lung.

Pneumeric Capnospot
Sasha Gentling, co-founder and executive vice president of Pneumeric, and Dr. John Aho, CEO and chief medical officer, show their Capnospot device attached to a needle angiocatheter Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Rochester. The Capnospot allows the user to detect when carbon dioxide flows out the needle during a needle decompression for tension pneumothorax.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — In emergency medicine, doctors and first responders strive to be quick and efficient in sometimes chaotic settings to save lives.

A drive for better efficiency has spurred the improvement of many devices and procedures used in emergency situations.

A Rochester doctor noticed during his training that one procedure badly needed updating. Dr. John Aho was learning how to treat pneumothorax, a condition that happens when a patient’s lung collapses and air leaks into the space between the lung and the chest wall.

Aho remembers sitting in an ambulance garage and being taught to use a needle angiocatheter to poke a hole in the patient’s chest to release the trapped air. The procedure is called a needle thoracostomy or decompression.

He was told the only way to know if the procedure was successful and doesn’t need to be done again was to listen for the “gushing” sound of the air being released.

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“But we were doing these procedures and we weren't hearing them. And I was like, ‘This procedure is bogus. This is 2022. We should be better than this,’” remembers Aho. “It's basically a guessing game. … Most paramedics that you talk to will admit that they've done the procedure several times and they've heard that gush of air maybe once.”

Pneumothorax is usually a traumatic emergency situation, which means the treatment is very often administered in an ambulance or a helicopter or even on a battlefield. A needle thoracostomy needs to happen quickly in environments that are usually noisy.

Pneumeric Capnospot
Pneumeric's Capnospot, which fits on the end of a needle angiocatheter and allows the user to detect when carbondioxide flows out the needle during a needle decompression for tension pneumothorax. Photographed Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“We were judging our success or failure on a procedure based on some auditory signal in an auditory loud environment. … A visual realm is much more obvious,” said Aho. “Using a visual confirmation means everybody around the patient can see that the procedure was successful. There's no doubt that the procedure either worked or it did not work.”

Reinforcing that idea is that physicians and nurses already use a visual device to determine if a breathing tube is inserted correctly. A special piece of litmus paper turns from blue to yellow, when exhaled carbon dioxide contacts it.

To bring that visual confirmation to the pneumothorax treatment, Aho created a clear plastic tube or straw with a piece of litmus paper in it that attaches to a needle angiocatheter. He calls it the Pneumeric Capnospot .

Testing in animals, Aho found that the change of color is almost immediate, so it is quicker than the listening method. That's valuable in an emergency situation, where seconds count.

After about five years of development and testing, Aho licensed the research from Mayo Clinic. He left his position at the clinic and co-founded a new Rochester company, Pneumeric Inc., with Sasha Gentling.

While Pneumeric is still young, it is already garnering attention and awards.

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Pneumeric competed in the 2022 Minnesota Cup contest, which is considered one of the top business competitions in the United States. The Rochester company faced 2,595 other Minnesota startups in the annual contest.

The company was named a runner-up in the Life Science/Health IT division. However, it also was honored by the Carlson Family Foundation , which chose Pneumeric as the Top Greater Minnesota Team.

Tim Penny’s Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation also singled out Pneumeric as the Top Team in Southern Minnesota.

Both Gentling and Aho grew up in Rochester and still live here, so they anticipate their company’s future will be here. They worked with Minnesota manufacturer to make the Capnospot prototype.

While they are working in very different spaces, Pneumeric can be generally compared to Nanodropper, another Rochester startup that won the top Minnesota Cup award in 2021. Nanondropper makes a precision eye dropper that universally fits on most eye medicine bottles to reduce medicine waste and improve patient experience.

Pneumeric Capnospot
Sasha Gentling, co-founder and executive vice president of Pneumeric, and Dr. John Aho, CEO and chief medical officer, show their Capnospot device attached to a needle angiocatheter Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Rochester. The Capnospot allows the user to detect when carbondioxide flows out the needle during a needle decompression for tension pneumothorax.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“That's a decent comparison. It's simple. It's lightweight. It's inexpensive. It's something you bolt on to something else,” said Aho.

Gentling explained that Pneumeric is aiming for a large market for its product.

“We're talking about every ambulance, every medical helicopter, every ED and combat medicine situations,” she said. “These aren’t used everyday, but this is something would probably be used several times a month.”

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The effectiveness of the litmus paper does expire, so unused Pneumeric Capnospots will need to be replaced on a regular basis.

Pneumeric has raised a solid base of capital and is now moving forward to bring its device to market. Gentling and Aho hope to have Capnospots being sold and stock in ambulances and hospitals by the summer of 2023.

They see this as a simple improvement to make a trauma procedure easier and more effective, which will help save lives.

“There's so much guessing in the clinical space. We like to think everything is very, very high tech, but it's not,” said Aho. “This replaces the guesswork with a clear sign of success.”

Jeff Kiger writes a daily column, "Heard Around Rochester," in addition to writing articles about local businesses, Mayo Clinic, IBM, Hormel Foods, Crenlo and others. The opinions of my employer do not necessarily reflect my opinions. He has worked in Rochester for the Post Bulletin since 1999. Send tips to jkiger@postbulletin.com or via Twitter to @whereskiger . You can call him at 507-285-7798.
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