A distinguished University of Florida Emeritus Professor of Anesthesiology has been elected to the rank of National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellow, the highest professional distinction awarded solely to academic inventors.
Richard J. Melker, MD, PhD, who cofounded the medical technology company Xhale® Inc. in Gainesville in 2005, was chosen for his prolific biomedical inventions. Those include his first and most successful – the Melker Emergency Cricothyrotomy Catheter Set for emergency airway access licensed in 1985 by Cook Medical, which continues to be used frequently today worldwide – and numerous devices to improve patient monitoring. He has more than 70 issued U.S. patents to his name.
“It’s a great honor to be inducted and to be recognized for the intellectual property I’ve developed over the years,” Dr. Melker said.
Dr. Melker began his academic career as an emergency room physician, serving as Director of Emergency Medical Services at Shands Hospital from 1979 to 1982 and cofounding the ShandsCair aeromedical transport program in 1981. Seeing a need to improve medical technology, he transitioned from the clinical to research realm and became a Professor in the Departments of Anesthesiology and Pediatrics in 1996. He served in that capacity until 2013, when he became an Emeritus Professor of Anesthesiology.
After his first patent was licensed by Cook Medical and proved to be a surprise success to the company, Dr. Melker’s career in innovation took off. He credited the university’s burgeoning support for licensing intellectual property as well as numerous innovative colleagues in the Department of Anesthesiology.
“The Department of Anesthesiology saw the potential where a lot institutions didn’t,” he said. “They provided support that you don’t find that often in academic medicine.”
The cricothyrotomy catheter kit has had perhaps the most lasting impact of Dr. Melker’s many inventions. The method involves the insertion of a hollow tube over a wire into the cricothyroid membrane and into the trachea, or windpipe, and can be rapidly achieved by doctors of numerous specialties, not just surgeons.
“Previously, a surgeon was needed to perform a tracheostomy, but not might be available in a timely manner. This new technique really opened up prevention of asphyxia to a wide number of physicians and other healthcare providers,” Professor and Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology Timothy E. Morey, MD, wrote in a nomination letter for Dr. Melker’s induction. “Attesting to its value and importance, this kit is ubiquitous throughout the U.S. health system and is purchased by the thousands by the U.S. Department of Defense.”
Dr. Morey noted that many others have mimicked Dr. Melker’s idea and many other types of kits are now available for emergent airway management that rely on the original patent as a template to be adapted for specific uses.
“No one can say how many lives this technology has saved for sure, but what a wonderful legacy for a single invention,” he wrote.
Perpetually seeking new knowledge, Dr. Melker also taught a class on intellectual property at UF as a way to learn everything he could about the field that captured his interest and shaped his career.
Dr. Melker was also a joint Professor of Biomedical Engineering from 1998 until 2013 and a Professor in the Center for Nanobio Sensors from 2007 to 2013. He was involved in a program that allowed biomedical engineering graduate students to shadow doctors as a way to see the human side of medicine and understand the limitations or opportunities with existing technologies. He was also a Director of the Florida Anesthesiology Computer and Engineering Team (FACET) at UF, which was a group of engineers and clinicians who collaborated on new ideas and products.
In 2005, he founded Xhale® Inc. on technology licensed from UF with Donn M. Dennis, MD, also an Emeritus Professor of Anesthesiology, and served as its Chief Technology Officer until retiring about 2 years ago. One of the company’s focuses is the SMART® Adherence System to monitor how participants take study medications in clinical trials. Another is a patient monitoring technology called Assurance® to improve and expand the use of pulse oximetry in clinical settings. The Assurance® technology was acquired by Philips Healthcare in 2018.
That pulse oximetry technology was the result of new anatomical knowledge and early in its life might have been as or more important that the emergency cricothyrotomy invention, Dr. Morey said.
Dr. Melker’s other notable innovations include a sensor tool to reduce hospital infections by reminding healthcare workers to sanitize their hands in between patients. That award-winning technology was spun off from Xhale® into a company called HyGreen and has been installed in healthcare systems nationally.
Dr. Melker’s influence and drive led to the creation of numerous biomedical companies. Neil Euliano, PhD, President of Convergent Engineering in Gainesville and a former Courtesy Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, collaborated with Dr. Melker at UF and in spin-off companies from 1993 to 2018. The two worked on numerous projects, including new methods of using pulse oximeters, breath-sensing detection of drugs and diseases, and advanced ventilator designs with clinical decision support via artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Dr. Euliano said Dr. Melker motivated him to work in the biomedical field and start his own company, Convergent Engineering, which led to two other spinoffs.
“Dr. Melker showed me how important patents were for commercializing technology and amazed me in how diverse his expertise and interests were (everything from suntan lotion that colored the skin when applied, sprinkler designs, to the very important Melker Cricothyrotomy kit and medical devices),” Dr. Euliano said. “Dr. Melker had a significant impact on my life and indirectly our employees and spinoff employees.”
Dr. Morey also highlighted Dr. Melker’s guidance and encouragement for faculty at UF and across the nation.
“He frequently conducts off-the-cuff lectures to educate faculty on the process of patenting, the disclosure process to the university, and the entire spectra of faculty entrepreneurism and technology transfer,” Dr. Morey wrote. “Indeed, he remains a true ambassador of innovation and reducing intellectual creations to usable products for our patients and nation.”
An induction ceremony for the fellows is scheduled for June 7 to 9, 2021, in Tampa, Florida. The keynote address will be delivered by a senior representative of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Worldwide, the NAI Fellow program has 1,228 fellows representing more than 250 universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutes. In total, Fellows have more than 38,000 U.S. patents, which have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies and 2,300 companies and created more than 19.5 million jobs. In addition, over $2.2 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.
Among all NAI Fellows, there are more than 137 presidents and senior leaders of research universities, governmental and nonprofit research institutes; 556 members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine; 42 inductees of the National Inventors Hall of Fame; 63 recipients of the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation and U.S. National Medal of Science; and 38 Nobel Laureates, among other awards and distinctions.