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Published June 20, 2010, 12:00 AM

Minnesota medical inventor has dozens of patents

Technological advances used in bone grafts, periodontal surgery
DULUTH, Minn. – Dr. John Brekke sensed he was on the threshold of a scientific breakthrough. But something was missing. So he walked to the Blue Heron in the Dewitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park and bought some coffee grinders.

By: John Lundy, Forum Communications Co., INFORUM

DULUTH, Minn. – Dr. John Brekke sensed he was on the threshold of a scientific breakthrough. But something was missing.

So he walked to the Blue Heron in the Dewitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park and bought some coffee grinders.

“They’re really high-speed blades,” he recalled, “and they churn out about 10,000 rpm. They’re impressive, and they’re cheap. I got a couple of those, and I had chitosan in the lab waiting to be dissolved, and I had hyaluronic acid, and I blended them up, chopped them up as small as I could, and put them together.

“Remember, this is just killing time on a Saturday.”

More on that Saturday – Aug. 16, 2003 – later.

Suffice it to say that Brekke doesn’t mind going outside the box when he’s on the hunt for answers.

Brekke, 67, of Duluth, may be the most famous inventor you’ve never heard of. He has 26 U.S. patents and an uncertain number of foreign patents. Technology he invented in the 1970s is still foundational to three products sold by the Kensey Nash Corp., the Exton, Pa., medical device company. His inventions have been used in dental and facial surgery and in the early treatment of osteoarthritis. The technology he’s been developing for the past seven years could change the way cell research is conducted.

Brekke has wavy gray hair, wears outsized, frameless glasses, has a mischievous grin and frequently breaks out in contagious laughter. He returns often to favorite adages. Matt Stuart, a former student at the University of Minnesota Duluth now working in cellular and molecular biology in the Twin Cities, recalls him saying, “If there’s a button, push it; a knob, turn it; a lever, throw it; or a switch, flip it.”

People who have known Brekke, worked with him and studied under him describe him in different ways, but sooner or later they all use the word “brilliant” or its equivalent.

“John is eccentric, and he comes across that way,” said Tim Ringeisen, senior director of biomaterials research at Kensey Nash, who got his start working for Brekke. “But he’s also brilliant. When you spoke to him, you could just see how brilliant the man is.”

Brekke has an “unbelievable ability to shut out everything around him and concentrate on what’s at hand that he’s thinking of,” said David Langley, a technical librarian from Esko who spends anywhere from one hour to 30 hours a week researching for Brekke.

Brekke, who earned his dental surgery degree from the University of Minnesota and got his start as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, has had research labs on Central Entrance, in the Meierhoff Building in Canal Park, at UMD during a recent teaching stint there, and currently, in the basement of his Lakewood Township home. He has worked with scientists at Colorado State University, Walter Reed Hospital, the University of Iowa, the University of California-San Diego and with students at UMD. He has lectured and presented papers in Sacramento, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Boston; Chicago; New Orleans; and Hilton Head, S.C., among other places.

And he has never considered a home base other than Duluth.

“The deal when we sold to (Kensey Nash) was, I live in Duluth,” Brekke said. “If you don’t agree with that, then we don’t have anything more to talk about. I’m going to stay here.” Brekke worked for the corporation out of Duluth and then as a consultant, but he ended his ties with Kensey Nash in 2003.

Brekke, who is divorced and has two grown daughters, grew up in Minneapolis. He was 9 when a family trip to the North Shore fixed the idea of living in Duluth in his mind, and after completing a residency in Washington, D.C., and after a couple of years in the Army, he set up practice here. His career direction changed drastically in 1974 when he was performing a procedure requiring bone grafting, with bone being taken from the hip and grafted into the facial skeleton.

That was routine, Brekke said, but it bugged him. “In 1974, we had guys walking on the moon, and we as surgeons were still doing at least a hundred-year-old procedure to get graft bone that worked only 85 percent of the time that’s fraught with numerous technical difficulties.”

That led Brekke to the experiments that resulted in a biodegradable, artificial substance for use in bone-graft surgery – and ultimately to the products that Kensey Nash still markets today.

But by that fateful Saturday, Aug. 16, 2003, Brekke had no more role in his own technology. He was to leave the next day to lecture at a symposium in Pittsburgh, but his Saturday was free.

“For the first time in ... almost 30 years, I had nothing to do,” he said.

With research help from Langley and John Gubbe, a chemist who is the quality assurance manager for Tate & Lyle of Duluth, he had been experimenting with hyaluronic acid, at one time thought to be a “big, stupid molecule,” in Brekke’s words, but by 2003 well-established as a critical component in wound-healing and tissue regeneration. He had been working on ways to combine it with chitosan, the substance that gives the exoskeleton of shellfish its hardness.

“I rigged up every kind of Rube Goldberg apparatus you could think of to get these together,” he said.

His goal was “to create a more realistic environment in which to study cells.” They had been studied in a two-dimensional, rigid environment. “And we are trying to make things to regenerate tissue, three-dimensionally and malleable,” Brekke said. “That’s a huge disconnect.”

He went to the lab in the Meierhoff Building and looked at notes he’d written on a legal pad. He realized that mixing the chemicals as diluted solutions hadn’t worked. “The message was clear,” he said. “Don’t dissolve these things first in dilute solutions. Rather, blend them as dry particles, and add the water later.”

So he walked over to the Blue Heron and got those coffee grinders.

What results from the mix is an unexciting, white, granular powder. But when Brekke looked at it through his stereoscope, he saw what he needed to reach that realistic environment for studying cells.

He also knew that following through was going to end his financial security.

“These kinds of things, you can’t just dabble your toe in them,” Brekke said. “If you’re going to be an entrepreneur of any description, but on top of that also an inventor and then business entrepreneur, it will take everything you’ve got, every time you go out.”

Brekke formed a company with the unwieldy name of Bioactive Regenerative Therapeutics Inc. He filed for a patent in December 2003, and it was awarded in April 2009. The trick has been attracting investors.

He got a boost from the European Union, which starting in 2012 will no longer accept data derived from animal studies for approvals of foods, drugs, devices or cosmetics. Brekke’s technology is designed to circumvent animal studies in many cases. He believes the Food and Drug Administration eventually will follow suit.

Within the past two weeks, he and business adviser Sherry Grisewood of New York have had talks with two Minnesota companies regarding applications of the new material in orthopedic surgery and cell biology research.

Grisewood, who has worked with Brekke since 1992 and is a shareholder in his company, said the plan is to directly sell the technology as a research tool and to license it for therapeutic uses that could include delivery of cancer drugs, orthopedic pain reduction and wound healing. Both areas are potentially lucrative.

The developments have Brekke feeling optimistic about the next step. “Right now, I wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” he said.

John Lundy is a writer for the Duluth News Tribune