February 1, 1998

4 Min Read
Health-Care Improvements for the Masses from a Caring Engineer

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry Magazine
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An MD&DI  February 1998 Column


If the number of infectious disease cases drops dramatically in the future because of retractable syringes, Tom Shaw may be among those responsible. Shaw says a television program inspired him to try to halt communicable disease transmission by accidental needle sticks.

"A female doctor in California was saying that people were getting accidental needle sticks and the engineers didn't care, and that there was no reason for this situation to exist." explains Shaw. "I thought, 'I'm an engineer, and I care,' so the next day I went to a pharmacist I knew, and he gave me some syringes.

"I was a structual engineer, and I took the syringes to the office and starting looking at them, playing darts with them, and thinking about the logistics of the problem and what the challenges would be to try to really fix it."

After about a year, Shaw had developed a preliminary design concept and was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (part of NIH) to do a feasibility study. The project received phase I and II grants; his company, Retractable Technologies (Little Elm, TX), is now funding phase III through private investment.

"If I see any kind of machine part of anything, I remember it the rest of my life," Shaw says. "I can meet somebody, talk to them a bit, but when they leave the room, I'll have no idea what their name is. I've got the mechanical, visual chip, but not the name chip." No doubt Shaw's uncanny mechanical ability helped push the project forward to its final solution: a device that looks and works like a conventional syringe except that after the solution is injected, continued pressure on the plunger retracts the needle within the plastic casing, which cannot be taken apart.

Shaw didn't always appreciate his talent or relish the expectations it brought to him. "When I was growing up, there was never anything I couldn't fix. I'd go to somebody's house for dinner and end up under their washing machine because they knew I'd be able to get it working again. There isn't a house that doesn't have a leaky faucet or a bad hinge. I was constantly in a situation in which there was work for me to do."

Because Shaw was always asked to do certain chores because no one else knew how, he almost didn't pursue engineering as a career. "I decided that my talent was more of a problem than a benefit," he says, "and I didn't particularly enjoy it. I wanted to be in other fields. Just about anything other than pinochle." Shaw studied architecture for several years in college. "I was somewhat sensitive to criticism, so about halfway through it, I retreated and finished up in engineering."

Although Shaw had no trouble finding work in his field, it wasn't until he started pursuing his syringe project that he felt a sense of fulfillment and urgency.

"For some reason, I felt that doctor was looking right at me. It was like she was saying, 'You know you can fix that syringe. It might take you a while, but if you knew you could be helping so many people, how could you not do it?' "

The mystical quality behind Shaw's pursuit soon became personal. He lost a childhood neighborhood friend and a coworker to AIDS since he began working on the retractable needle. "There was nothing I could do for them," Shaw says. "I'm a mechanic, not a biologist, but I felt I could do something that might prevent this for other people. We should take care of the part we can do while we're trying to figure out what to do about the part that's a little more complicated."

Shaw is quick, however, to downplay his role behind the new syringe. "From the very beginning, I realized that this was way bigger than I was. I have no illusions. Somebody could back a truck over me tomorrow, and this technology will still be here," he says. About the only thing he will take credit for is being persistent. "For every new technology, there's somebody behind it who's obsessed with it, like trying to do a Rubik's cube and refusing to let go until it's solved."

Shaw hopes to quell the notion that it's difficult to work with the government. "We've never had anything but an excellent relationship," he says. "All the elements were working together to bring this technology into being. This is not the story of a guy at a barstool with a napkin, who yells, 'Yeah, eureka, I got it!' It makes a great story, but that's not what happened."

Shaw laughs about the irony of being inspired by something he saw on television. "My parents considered televisions to be undesirable—my family never owned one—because people would sit around and think they were having real experiences when they weren't."

Jennifer M. Sakurai is managing editor of  MD&DI.

Copyright ©1998 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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