The tiny scaffolding had to be strong, long-lasting and visible to an X-ray. It had to be able to hold open a human artery for extended periods of time to keep blood flowing. It had to be able to keep people alive.
That was the task put before Paul Jablonski, a metallurgist in the Process Development Division of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Albany, Ore.
Jablonski is a metal specialist, a scientist whose passion is creating new alloys with just the right properties to perform specific tasks. In the case of the scaffolding used as a stent to keep blood flowing through human arteries, the stakes could hardly be higher.
When the project was completed, Jablonski was credited with transforming the world of coronary stents, greatly enhancing their safety and reliability by making them visible to X-ray machines.
“Paul almost singlehandedly revolutionized coronary stent technology,” said Paul King, NETL’s director of business development. “Since its introduction in 2010, the platinum-chromium stent series has become the leading stent platform in the world, with more than $4 billion in sales and a 45 percent market share in the United States and a 33 percent global market share.”
Jablonski’s stent is made of a platinum-chromium alloy, which makes it radiopaque, meaning it can be seen by an X-ray machine. This property makes implantation much easier and allows doctors to examine the stent after it is placed in an artery. Stents previously were made only of bare metal.
Recognizing the need for materials that could perform in more challenging areas of the anatomy, Boston Scientific, a leading maker of medical devices, turned to the NETL. The lab’s mission includes engaging in cutting-edge research and assisting industry in technological development and product commercialization through its Work for Others (WFO) program.
Developing the alloy for the new stent was a relatively simple task, but finding a manufacturing process to bring it to scale for commercial production was a different story.
“Paul worked with Boston Scientific and with the future suppliers, not just on the chemistry, but how you produce it to give it the characteristics needed to be successful. Discovering an alloy is more run-of-the-mill, but to discover and also deploy it is exceptional,” said Cynthia Powell, director of the office of research and development at the NETL.
Jon Stinson, the principal research and development engineer at Boston Scientific, said the new alloy is a significant metallurgical accomplishment, but added that “the real tangible benefit is what it has done for physicians and their patients, and their outcomes.”
Coronary stents are a relatively new technology, with roots in the 1980s and 1990s. At first, medical device makers did the best they could using existing materials from other industries and those used in other clinical applications like orthopedic implants.
Jablonski brought to bear his own metallurgical expertise as well as his creativity and innovation to make unusual prototypes of the material. There was some skepticism about the potential of these alloys, since their creation in some cases went against metallurgical theory.
Stinson said Jablonski never became protective of his research and the tiny life-saving device it produced. When the government work was done, the transfer to Boston Scientific was seamless.
“When the handoff comes for someone outside of a group or a company, the engineer can get into a blocking mode. Paul was very gracious and participated in the transition,” he said.
Because of Jablonski’s thorough approach to his research, the finished product was so well developed that the Food and Drug Administration felt comfortable enough to grant it quick approval.
“He is a very perceptive, thorough engineer. He was very well prepared when he started on the alloy trials. Each time he did an experiment, he thoroughly evaluated the materials and considered the microstructure and material properties before designing the next experiment. There was no wasted time, no wasted resources. He was very efficient and effective,” Stinson said.
Besides his work on the stent alloy, Jablonski has authored or coauthored more than 65 peer-reviewed publications and received four patents. Working with the Army Research Laboratory, he also developed a titanium alloy for personal body armor and prototype cast-steel vehicle armor that made U.S. troops safer during the Iraq war.
King, NETL’s director of business development, called Jablonski a pragmatic, humble individual who sees the practical implications of his work. “Most scientists are interested in discovery. He is making things for a purpose—not just discovery,” King said.