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Minnesota miracle-maker

Kurt Amplatz, M.D.

Kurt Amplatz’s medical inventions are saving lives. Now he’s giving back to the university that gave him his start.

It’s difficult to find AGA Medical Corporation’s Golden Valley office. Located on a frontage road off Highway 169 and tucked behind a sprawling business complex, it seems possible the company prefers to remain anonymous. But inside is something well worth discovering.

Just inside past the receptionist’s desk, you’ll find a wall of small, official-looking plaques — 13 in all. On closer inspection, it’s clear that each one commemorates a patent for a unique, often life-saving medical device or procedure. And each one originated in the mind of Kurt Amplatz, M.D., 82, a revolutionary inventor and pioneer in interventional radiology and pediatric cardiology. In short, one of Minnesota’s medical miracle-makers.

Amplatz formed AGA Medical in 1995 with his own start-up money and two partners. Today it’s bringing in more than $100 million a year in revenue, does business in more than 90 countries, employs nearly 200, and is growing so fast that it’s outgrown its current space. In fact, employees are already preparing to move to a much larger space in Plymouth later this year.

None of this appears to be important to Amplatz, however. But ask him about the devices he’s created to treat everything from kidney stones to heart defects to migraines, and he comes alive. “What I’m most interested in,” he explains, “is helping people, coming up with new inventions, and puttering around in my workshop.”

Amplatz was born in Austria and retains a bit of his native accent today. After earning his medical degree in Innsbruck in 1951, he came to the United States for an internship in Brooklyn, New York, and a residency in Detroit. In 1957 he made his way to the University of Minnesota, lured by doctors who were doing innovative work in open-heart surgery.

He spent the next four decades on the Minneapolis campus inventing medical tools and procedures ranging from a rudimentary machine to inject dye into children’s hearts to reveal defects to a technique to remove kidney stones through a patient’s back. Many of them have since been replaced with newer technologies. But others — such as catheters, guide wires, renal dilators, and gooseneck snares — are still being used in hospitals around the world. Some of his inventions have even spawned other start-up device companies in Minnesota, including businesses formerly known as AngioMedics, SciMed Life Systems, and Microvena.

Late in his career, Amplatz turned his attention to congenital heart defects. It was in a small rented space on University Avenue that he and his son, Curtis, developed the first device designed to close a hole in the wall between the upper chambers of the heart. It eventually became known as the Amplatzer® septal occluder, his most famous invention. It was also the device that launched AGA Medical. By 1999 it was widely adopted in Europe; that same year, Amplatz retired from his faculty position at the University of Minnesota. By 2002 the device had FDA approval for use in the United States.

The proceeds made Amplatz a wealthy man, but his abiding interest in experimentation kept his sights in the workshop and in the laboratory. Even today he’s still inventing, with six new medical devices in the works in three local labs — one of them at the University.

Ever humble, he’s never forgotten his roots. “I come from the U,” he says with an engaging grin. “I’ve been there for 45 years. All of my accomplishments are a result of the U.”

That’s the main reason Amplatz gives for AGA Medical’s $2 million gift to the Medical School’s Department of Radiology this spring. The money will establish the permanently endowed Amplatz Chair in Radiology, which will be used to attract and retain outstanding faculty in the field of radiology and to encourage research fellows and staff who are training in interventional radiology.

“By establishing this chair, AGA Medical is not only honoring a world-class physician, but also elevating the Medical School and the entire University community,” says Deborah Powell, M.D., dean of the Medical School. “The faculty who hold endowed chairs attract other passionate scholars. They ignite their students’ curiosity. Their groundbreaking discoveries turn the world’s attention to Minnesota, bring in major research grants, and create jobs in the University and the private sector.”

If Kurt Amplatz’s story is any indication, it could provide the start for another pioneering mind at the University of Minnesota. Amplatz himself fondly remembers the $1,000 grant he received from the Minnesota Medical Foundation early in his career. Today he sees the Amplatz Chair as a way to give back to the university that provided seed money for his early experiments and the faculty position that allowed him to pursue his inventive ideas.

“It makes me feel good,” he says of both the chair and his work. “And it helps people.”

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