Heavyweights bet on local fat buster: Ultrasound breaks up flab
Seattle Times business reporter
It sounds like a late-night TV huckster's pitch, but a local engineer believes he is two to three years away from delivering a pain-free ultrasonic fat buster. No surgery, no Atkins, no exercise. Just walk in the doctor's office for a one-hour scan, go back to work that afternoon and watch the fat fade away the next six weeks.
It's still way too early to declare a quick fix to the American problem with body image. But some of Silicon Valley's savviest investors in medical devices are now betting $27 million on a Bothell company called Liposonix that's developing the technology.
The technique, called SonoSculpt, uses high-intensity ultrasound waves, beamed a little more than an inch under the skin, to break up fatty tissues without pain, scars, anesthesia or a long recovery time.
Jens Quistgaard, an electrical engineer from Lake Forest Park, has made his career in the local ultrasound industry, fine-tuning the technology for uses like prenatal tests. He was recruited by venture capitalists to build the Liposonix concept into a company two years ago.
Ultrasound has long been used as a medical diagnostic tool and more recently for therapeutic purposes, such as breaking up kidney stones.
Quistgaard doesn't want people to get too carried away with hype over the societal impact of the fat-busting technology. "We're not saving babies here," he says.
But he knows the business potential could be huge. Americans spent an estimated $9.4 billion last year on cosmetic surgery and nonsurgical cosmetic treatments like Botox, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Liposuction, a procedure that commonly costs $4,000 to $9,000, was the most popular form of cosmetic surgery, with more than 380,000 patients choosing it and generally paying out of their own pockets.
The president of the plastic-surgeons organization, Peter Fodor of Los Angeles, is so enthusiastic about the new technique that he has joined the Liposonix scientific-advisory board.
"This is bound to totally revolutionize the approach to body sculpting," he said.
Liposonix's technology still has several hurdles to clear before it can compete with liposuction.
The company says that in testing on 30 people in Mexico, the treatment didn't burn or seriously irritate the skin, successfully reduced fat on the abs, and didn't cause serious complications such as lung clots by sending too much loose fat into the bloodstream.
The tests, which have not yet been published in medical literature, consisted of a few one-hour treatments, then three months of observation, Quistgaard said.
Ultrasound has been used for years as an assisting tool in liposuction, the surgical removal of fat. But engineering the frequency and energy of an ultrasound beam to disrupt fat cells from outside the skin, without hurting the skin or other tissues, presents an "incredible technical challenge," Quistgaard said.
Partly for that reason, Liposonix believes it has just one serious competitor, Ultrashape, an Israeli startup.
Fat's fate still a mystery
Exactly where the fat goes after it has been jolted loose by ultrasound is still not fully understood. Liposonix and its medical advisers believe the body's immune system responds to the disrupted site, digests some fat cells and carries some into the bloodstream. Other fat cells might migrate to other body parts, while others are excreted.
Quistgaard said he will use the investors' money to fine-tune the technology so that the ultrasound procedure takes less than an hour. Then the company plans to move to the real proving ground: a pivotal clinical trial in the United States with clearly defined goals and a group of several hundred test patients.
The goal is to win approval from the Food and Drug Administration and deliver the technology to the market in 2006.
If it works safely, the appeal would be widespread.
"Anybody in their right mind, when given an option to not have to exercise and still to be able to look better in a bathing suit or at a wedding, can see that could be very big," said Deborah Trigueiro, patient-care coordinator for Dr. David Stephens, a Bellevue plastic surgeon.
Dr. Braden Stridde, a Federal Way plastic surgeon hired by a Seattle venture-capital firm to evaluate Liposonix as an investment, believes the technology is safe. It has promise to get rid of moderate-sized fat deposits without quite being potent enough to replace liposuction, he said.
"The company has taken a reasoned and cautious approach to development. There's good science behind this and good clinical trials that demonstrate efficacy," Stridde said.
The company said the technique would not likely be used to treat obesity but for body sculpting or contouring. Liposuction is most commonly done for that purpose — for example, to get rid of stubborn fat deposits like love handles. Since fat is light compared with muscle and bone, 5 to 7 liters can be removed without a patient losing much weight.
Investors in bidding war
The economics of Liposonix's approach excited potential investors, who outbid each other to participate in the $27 million financing.
The liposuction market itself is worth hundreds of millions annually, and no one knows how many more people would opt for a similarly effective, equally costly, less-invasive procedure.
Trevor Moody, a partner with Frazier Healthcare Ventures in Seattle — which considered investing but was one of many firms unable to elbow its way in — said Liposonix has the potential to be "enormously successful."
"This company has the ability to captivate the public imagination, to be a medical technology from Seattle that could be featured on the front page of The New York Times or Cosmopolitan or on Oprah. It is very exciting for Seattle," Moody said.
Quistgaard has kept a low profile and avoided speaking to the national media, mainly to keep his company focused. The attention would also surely invite critics.
The engineer makes no apologies to critics, who might dismiss the SonoSculpt as another sign of Americans' vanity run amok.
"The way I look at it, if society is at a stage where people are free to think about things like this, rather than where their next meal is coming from, that's positive," Quistgaard said.
"We're not saving babies here, but a person's body image and self-esteem are important and helps them function to their maximum potential. If we can do that, and do it safely, that would be a great thing."
Quistgaard, a 6-footer with an athletic build, said he doesn't feel the need to personally try out the SonoSculpt technology.
But, he added, "If somebody really figured out a cure for hair loss, sign me up."
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company