Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was scrambling outside the pocket to his left, looking frenziedly for an open receiver, when he stepped into a slide to avoid a tackle. It didn’t work.
On his way down, Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril slammed Romo from behind, wrapping his left arm securely across the four-time Pro Bowler’s shoulder while pulling him to the ground. Romo, already fragile from a string of serious back injuries in recent years, landed awkwardly on the turf that night at CenturyLink Field.
Ostensibly, the sack appeared to be the kind of innocuous play that occurs dozens of times over the course of a typical NFL season. In Romo’s younger days, he likely would have bounced immediately back up to lead another offensive huddle.
This time though, Romo stayed down, grimacing and holding his lower back. Fans (and team personnel) collectively held their breath.
“I was just in shock and had my mind on just, ‘C’mon, Tony. Get up,’” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told the team’s television broadcast after the preaseason game last summer. “Said a few prayers right there in the middle on the spot. Really just couldn’t imagine getting that hand dealt to us.”
Cowboys Nation initially thought it had been dealt a better hand: Romo walked off the field insisting he was “fine,” and later began tossing a football on the sidelines. He also reportedly lobbied head coach Jason Garrett to return to the game, but was kept out as a precaution.
Garrett’s decision proved wise, as Romo’s injury was actually much more serious than either he or the team could have imagined. An MRI revealed a broken bone in Romo’s delicate back—benching the 36-year-old for the fourth time in three years.
Romo underwent back surgery twice in 2013, first for a cyst removal during the offseason and again in December that year after rupturing a disc in a Week 16 matchup against Washington. The injury kept him from securing the Cowboys a playoff berth in the season’s final game against Philadelphia (the team lost 24-22, with now-retired backup quarterback Kyle Orton completing 30 of 46 passes for 358 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions).
Two small spinal fractures briefly incapacitated Romo in 2014 but the All Pro quarterback still managed to lead his team to the NFC East title and its first playoff win since 2009.
Such a remarkable comeback was downright impossible last summer, though: Avril’s sack left Romo with a compression fracture of the L1 vertebra, an injury generally triggered by excess pressure on the spine. In Romo’s case, that pressure came from the clash of opposing forces—specifically, the downward momentum of gravity and Avril’s tackle, and the upward trajectory of a hard landing (seated, leaning forward with both feet outstretched).
Vetebral compression fractures (VCFs) are named for the type of damage they inflict upon the body. The injury occurs when the bone actually collapses and the front (anterior) part of the vertebral body forms a wedge shape, consequently crushing, or compressing, the inside cancellous bone. In visual terms, VCFs are akin to crushing a can of solid material until it loses 15 percent to 20 percent of its original height.
Most VCFs (including Romo’s) heal themselves over time with limited activity and immobilization in a back brace or corset for six to 12 weeks. Nearly all compression fracture victims recover completely and resume their everyday activities.
Surgery is rare, but sometimes necessary to repair unstable spines. The most common VCF surgical treatments include balloon kyphoplasty and percutaneous vertebroplasty—two procedures that are likely to grow in popularity over the next decade as the world’s population ages and succumbs to the bane of brittle bones. Osteoporosis is responsible for roughly 750,000 VCFs in the United States annually, though that figure is highly conservative, as back pain can easily masquerade as a number of culprits, including routine aging or arthritis.
“The growing global aging population is bringing a unique set of health concerns to the forefront of medicine, including the increasing prevalence of osteoporosis,” said Jennifer Ryan, healthcare analyst for GlobalData, a provider of data and analysis for healthcare, consumer, and technology businesses. “Osteoporotic fractures such as vertebral compression fractures are incredibly common and often heal on their own. However, for patients with lingering symptoms, medical intervention is necessary. Adoption of kyphoplasty is expected to grow as hospitals and healthcare providers make a shift towards cost-saving outpatient and minimally invasive surgical procedures.”
GlobalData statistics forecast the North American kyphoplasty market (covering Canada, Mexico, and the United States) to expand 11 percent annually for the next six years, reaching $1.1 billion in 2023.
That growth, however, could potentially be hampered by possible cement leakage and the introduction of both vertebral body stents and augmentation implants, Ryan warns.
Yet none of those roadblocks are likely to significantly impact market expansion, considering OEMs like DePuy Synthes, Medtronic plc, and Stryker Corp. have invested substantially in kyphoplasty technology. Medtronic has bankrolled the highest amount, shelling out close to $4 billion a decade ago to acquire Kyphon, the originator of kyphoplasty balloon technology. DePuy and Stryker have developed their own systems (Synflate and iVAS Inflatable Vertebral Augmentation System, respectively), but Stryker also supplemented its kyphoplasty offering last year with the purchase of CareFusion’s VCF lineup, which included the AVAmax, AVAflex, AVAtex, and AVAprep products.
The AVAflex balloon system provides “bipendicular results with a unipedicular approach,” a result physicians could only previously achieve with needles. Moreover, the system’s 30 mm balloon is touted to be the longest currently available on the market. In March this year, Stryker received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance to use its own cements, implants and the AutoPlex mixing and delivery system with AVAflex to treat vertebral compression fractures. The AutoPlex system mixes, transfers, and primes bone cement for delivery in less than 60 seconds through a single incision.
Complimentary deals like the Stryker-CareFusion exchange have become quite common in recent years as spinal companies attempt to diversify their offerings and differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded, competitive market. Driven by an estimated $19.54 billion jackpot (in 2024), players of all sizes are joining forces to fill portfolio gaps, extend their geographical reach, and/or add new technologies to their lineups that clearly demonstrate improved outcomes.
ChoiceSpine, for example, purchased Exactech Inc.’s spine assets in February to boost its international footprint, while Amendia paired with Spinal Elements to gain access to titanium-coated PEEK (polyetheretherketone) interbody technology and enhance its Overwatch pedicle screw system, Syzygy reduction screw system, and Ceres cervical product lines. The combined firm is now known as Spinal Elements.
Titanium and PEEK also were motivating factors behind NuVasive Inc.’s buyout of Vertera Spine in September. By integrating Vertera Spine’s FDA-approved COHERE Cervical and COALESCE Lumbar Interbody fusion devices into its lineup, NuVasive became the sole proprietor of porous interbody technology across both PEEK and titanium materials. According to company executives, preclinical trials have shown Vertera’s three-dimensional porous PEEK architecture helps stimulate bone ingrowth through “a proprietary processing method that retains strength and durability.”
Looking to capitalize on the growing demand for minimally invasive procedures, Wenzel Spine purchased OsteoMed’s PrimaLok SP interspinous fusion and FF facet fixation systems this past winter. The acquired platform features a polyaxial interspinous process device and percutaneous facet screw system for minimally invasive surgical treatments of lumbar spinal disorders. Wenzel integrated the technology with its VariLift-LX standalone, expandable interbody lineup to provide its surgeon customers supplemental fixation choices without the need for pedicle screw constructs.
“This acquisition provides our distributors and surgeons a powerful combination of MIS solutions,” Wenzel Spine president and CEO Chad Neely said when the deal was announced. “This expands our current product portfolio while strengthening our development pipeline and demonstrating our commitment to the development of innovative MIS solutions...”
DePuy Synthes bolstered its minimally invasive surgical (MIS) offerings as well, brokering an asset purchase and development deal with Interventional Spine Inc. in January, and acquiring Wixom, Mich.-based Sentio LLC in June.
The Interventional Spine deal adds spinal fusion expandable cages and a facet screw system for open and percutaneous spine surgery to DePuy’s core spine device platform. The implants are designed for optimal tactile feedback and feature a continuously adjustable design that allows clinicians to customize the product’s height to the patient’s anatomy. The expandable cages maximize bone graft contact and containment to promote bone growth and fusion, while the facet screw system uses small skin incisions without cutting the underlying muscle, helping reduce the risk of complications in spinal fusion surgery.
Sentio’s platform, meanwhile, provides real-time feedback on nerve location using adhesive smart sensors applied directly to the skin at relevant muscle groups. The system has a minimal operating room footprint and is simple enough to be set up and used by OR personnel. In an animal model, the firm’s technology detected nerve location faster than a competitive system and at lower levels of stimulation.
“At $9 billion globally, spine is a large but slow-growing segment (less than 3 percent). It is a very competitive space with an increasingly global demand for improved outcomes and shifting regulatory requirements starting to change the market dynamics,” said Nadav Tomer, platform leader at DePuy Synthes Spine. “We are committed to increasing customer value through a focus on innovation and addressing the global need for more value-based healthcare. Both external and internal innovation play a big role in our strategy for growth. Moving forward, we are focusing our efforts on faster-growing segments where we see the most potential for addressing growing patient needs, particularly adult deformity, aging spine, and minimally invasive spine solutions. Through external innovation, we are working to fill portfolio gaps quickly through targeted investments in these innovative segments.”
Innovative and discretionary, at best. With DePuy Synthes and others jockeying for share in the MIS spinal implant space, Zimmer Biomet set its sights on the global cervical disc replacement (CDR) market, a segment forecast to grow a staggering 23.1 percent annually through 2021 to reach $1.75 billion.
Like many of its rivals, Zimmer Biomet strengthened its market position through M&A, purchasing LDR Holding Corp. last summer for $1 billion. The deal essentially transformed Zimmer Biomet into a serious competitor in cervical disc replacement and minimally invasive surgery, in part because the Mobi-C device is one of only two FDA-approved products for adjacent one- and two-level disc replacements (Medtronic plc’s Prestige LP is the other). In clinical testing, Mobi-C demonstrated superiority to spinal fusion, an increasingly controversial technique, for two-level procedures.
Also contributing to Zimmer Biomet’s attempted CDR market conquest is LDR’s cache of issued patents (reportedly numbering in the hundreds) as well as the firm’s VerteBRIDGE platform, a system designed for zero-profile, stand-alone anterior cervical and lumbar interbody fusion. Since its 2007 introduction, VerteBRIDGE has been used in more than 100,000 device implantations globally.
Despite its newly augmented product portfolio, Zimmer Biomet faces stiff competition from Medtronic for CDR market dominance. With nearly 30 percent share, Medtronic is the largest player in the global spine sector, though it is still a relative newcomer to the two-level cervical disc space. Its Prestige LP disc received FDA approval in July 2016, nearly three years after the Mobi-C passed muster with the agency, and the product has only a fraction of its competitor’s reimbursement coverage: The Mobi-C currently is accessible to more than 200 million insured patients with one- or two-level disc disease across more than 90 commercial insurance plans.
Yet seven-year study data for the Prestige disc is promising. A 397-patient trial showed a 78.6 percent overall success rate for Prestige LP patients compared to a 62.7 percent rate in those treated with two-level anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF). The study also indicated a 91.6 percent rate of neurological success with Prestige, compared to 82.1 percent in the control group, as well as an 87 percent rate of patient-reported outcomes through the Neck Disability Index (NDI), compared to 82.1 percent with two-level ACDF.
Similarly, five-year study data of Mobi-C at two levels shows a 62.8 percent overall success rate compared to 34.1 percent for fusion surgery, an NDI score of 82 percent (vs. 56.6 percent for fusion), and far fewer subsequent procedures (3.8 percent) than fusion (16.2 percent). Moreover, the Mobi-C’s 4.4 percent adverse event rate is about half that of fusion procedures (8.6 percent).
“The cervical disc replacement market is the fastest-growing segment in spine. With the Mobi-C, we have one of only two cervical disc replacement devices that are approved for both one- and two-level applications, including a demonstrated overall superiority for the two-level application,” declared Joe Ross, general manager of Spine at Zimmer Biomet. “When you compare our device to the other available device, we feel that we have very compelling arguments for the attractiveness of our solution over our one competitor in the [CDR] segment.”
“Eighteen months ago, Zimmer Biomet realized the need to offer differentiated technologies beyond the broader commoditized solutions,” Ross continued. “The company saw the risk in vendor consolidation, the risk in pricing pressures, and the disadvantages of not offering something truly unique. The cervical disc market was not a particular strength of Zimmer Biomet pre-acquisition of LDR, but by acquiring the Mob-C solution, it significantly strengthened the company’s position in the cervical segments of the spine market. The [deal] was really the result of an identified need in having a very differentiated solution as part of our product portfolio.”
That same philosophy likely factored into Zimmer Biomet’s decision last summer to purchase Medtech SA, a French developer/manufacturer of commercialized robotic systems for brain and spine surgery. Medtech’s ROSA Spine device—used in more than 90 hospitals with over 100 robots installed worldwide in brain and spine applications—features a robotic arm with six degrees of freedom, advanced haptic capability, and a non-invasive, touch-free registration system. The product received CE Mark approval in 2014 and was granted FDA clearance in January 2016.
Zimmer Biomet’s purchase of Medtech’s robotic surgical platform places it in direct competition with Mazor Robotics, which partnered with Medtronic last year on robotics technology that is being touted as “transformative, advanced, and sophisticated.” To capture significant share in the surgical robotics space, however, Zimmer Biomet will have to fend off challenges not only from Medtronic, but also segment pioneer Intuitive Surgical Inc., TransEnterix Inc., Stryker, Smith & Nephew plc, Titan Medical Inc., Auris Surgical Robotics, Globus Medical Inc., and Cambridge Medical Robotics Ltd., among various others, as well as Johnson & Johnson and Verily Life Sciences, which last year launched their surgical robotics joint venture, Verb Surgical.
“It’s clear that the big discussion now in spine revolves around minimally invasive solutions and robotics,” Ross noted. “I think we’re at the inflection point with robotics where our customers are really beginning to see the potential advantages of the technology for both themselves and patients. The value of [robotics] is more quantifiable and tangible now and we see this space as a significant opportunity. There are large categories within spine that are crowded with commoditized products, and that has increased pricing pressure. This continues to be a challenge in the industry. Our approach to that [challenge] is to continue to be competitive and focus on areas we feel we can really differentiate ourselves with other technologies.”
Indeed, distinction is key to gaining market share in a progressively congested industry beset by cost-cutting initiatives, shrinking reimbursement rates, and restrictive hospital value analyses. M&A clearly has become an effective strategy for attaining differentiation, but it’s certainly not the only method spinal companies have to distinguish themselves from competitors.
Some, like DePuy Synthes (through Johnson & Johnson Medical Device Companies), set themselves apart by offering a holistic suite of solutions to help customers address such broad industry trends as bundled payments, data collection and analytics, single-sourcing, and outpatient surgery. Others prefer a more traditional approach, developing unique creations through in-house R&D programs.
Titan Spine, for instance, spent years cultivating its FDA-cleared proprietary nanoLOCK surface technology, which is designed to create an optimal host-bone response for fusion. The combination of roughened topographies at the macro, micro, and nano levels encourages the natural production of bone morphogenetic proteins, creating the potential for a faster, more robust fusion process, according to the Mequon, Wis.-based company.
nanoLOCK was well worth the time investment, as the technology received its own new Medicare category and coverage code last summer. The code allows for nano-textured surfaces on interbody fusion devices.
As if the new Medicare technology code wasn’t differentiating enough, Titan Spine also expanded its spinal device warranty in June 2016 to include free replacement of Endoskeleton interbody fusion devices that delaminate or generate particulate debris during implantation.
With warranties off-limits, ECA Medical Instruments Inc. devised the industry’s first sterile-packed instrument set for securing cannulated titanium screws. Launched in July, the kits are intended to reduce cost, eliminate reprocessing, improve patient safety, and reduce the risk of surgical site infection. The fully disposable kits include cannulated fixed drivers, torque limiters, cannulated countersinks and depth gauge instruments, drill guides, guidewires, and drill bits.
“Patent expirations have allowed most classes of spinal implants to become crowded with little clinical differentiation between products,” explained Matt Hendrick, CEO of Nanovis, a Columbia City, Ind.-based developer of implant systems that reduce fixation-related complications and infections. “The market fragmented from the entry of new competitors with ease of use of relationship advantages. The incumbent large companies have partnered with surgeons to improve surgical approaches, which require new implant designs that can gain market share for a time. NuVasive has been very successful with this strategy. Other companies have created advantages based on new technologies intended to improve how implants interact with the body.”
Such is the mission of Nanovis’ FortiCore technology. The company’s transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF) and posterior lumbar interbody fusion (PLIF) implants are designed with deeply porous titanium scaffolds to contact the endplate and a radiolucent, favorable-modulus PEEK core injection molded into the bottom of the scaffold to create a durable construct. The FortiCore TLIF and PLIF systems are available with MIS or open instrumentation.
“With an approximately 10 percent rate of lumbar non-fusions, we feel this area is where we can do the most good. Nanovis’ deeply porous titanium scaffolded FortiCore implant systems provide high fixation strength in a short timespan compared to PEEK, plasma-sprayed PEEK, or allograft...” Hendrick said. “Our next technology upgrade for this market is a patented nanotube surface that offers the potential to further enhance the interface with bone that our entire line of spinal implants offers surgeons. Combining these technologies provides Nanovis and our distributor partners an entire portfolio of highly-advanced and highly-differentiated products.”
Cerapedics Inc. is aiming for that same end result with its i-FACTOR Peptide Enhanced Bone Graft, the industry’s only biologic bone graft that incorporates a small peptide as an attachment factor to stimulate the natural bone-healing process. Two-year follow-up data from an FDA Investigational Device Exemption clinical trial have shown i-FACTOR Bone Graft to be statistically superior in overall success to autograft in ACDF procedures.
“Most companies that historically relied on rapid product lifecycles and ever-increasing price points have had to reassess their strategy,” said Jeffrey G. Marx, Ph.D., president and chief operating officer of the Westminster, Colo.-based orthobiologics firm. “We are somewhat unique in that our product is a Class III drug-device combination product that required an IDE clinical study and a PMA for approval. We’re entering a crowded market space but from a strong position in that we have Level I clinical data demonstrating superiority to autograft in cervical fusions. The vast majority of technologies we compete with have no clinical data.”
“Spine surgeons love new technology and new clinical data. We believe we have the only truly new technology in this space since InFuse was introduced,” Marx continued. “We are able to provide optimal clinical outcomes without adding safety concerns and at a strong value to the healthcare system. We believe this is the winning formula in a complex and challenging spine environment both now and into the future.”