Putting a jolt into vasectomies

A Providence medtech firm says it has developed a device to make the procedure simpler, safer, and faster

PHOTOS BY MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

PROVIDENCE — At a time when increased abortion restrictions are stoking the demand for shared responsibility, Bill Prentice wants to reinvent the vasectomy.

Prentice, 58, a Wall Street traderturned-entrepreneur, has received regulatory clearance for his five-year-old company, Signati Medical, to test a device he says will bring “a new level of comfort, safety, and speed” to a procedure that’s seen little innovation in the past century.

Using a hand-held device plugged into a radio frequency generator, the company’s “sealed vasectomy procedure” obstructs a pair of sperm-carrying tubes, called the vas deferens, by sending a shock of energy through the skin rather than manually cutting and fusing the tubes.

The device resembles the handles for jumper cables. The toaster-size generator is equipped with an algorithm that guides doctors through the process and shuts off automatically when the tubes are sealed.

For a procedure that has generally inspired squeamishness in many men, “the beauty of the Signati device is that you’re not opening the skin,” said Dr. Doug Stein, a Florida urologist who has performed tens of thousands of vasectomies and serves as a Signati clinical adviser.

If the Food and Drug Administration green-lights Signati’s device, Prentice, the CEO, wants to broadcast the first approved use of the company’s procedure — on himself — on live television.

Vasectomies, which sometimes cause swelling and bruising, are most often undergone by middle-aged fathers who no longer want more children. They remain far less common and risky than a more invasive female sterilization procedure known as tubal ligation or, more commonly, getting one’s “tubes tied.”

“Men need to step up,” said Prentice, who admitted he abandoned his own plan to have a vasectomy many years ago. “This is going to be less painful, less bruising, and get you back to your normal activity much faster. You’ll be in and out of the procedure in five minutes.”

Prentice hasn’t yet reached out to television stations — he’s waiting for FDA approval — but he thinks the procedure can be portrayed tastefully while educating doctors and potential patients. He likens it to television journalist Katie Couric’s colonoscopy on the “Today” show in 2018, which raised awareness of the im

portance of colon cancer screening.

While the nation’s fragmented health insurance system makes precise data hard to come by, health care providers estimate between 300,000 and 500,000 American men undergo vasectomies annually. They represent roughly 5 percent of men of reproductive age.

A trio of University of Chicago researchers, who analyzed health insurance data last year, found the vasectomy rate among privately insured men rose 26 percent between 2014 and 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. “We expect demand will be increasing further,” said Dr. Omer Raheem, a urologist and assistant professor of surgery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

One factor driving the demand, Raheem said, is the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022, which overturned federal constitutional protections for abortions and was followed by abortion bans or restrictions in nearly two dozen states.

Many urologists, especially in states that have outlawed abortions, have said they are already performing more vasectomies, though data on the trend is not yet available.

“The Dobbs verdict brought this to the forefront,” Prentice said. “Men are finally looking at this and saying to their wives, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it for you, and I’m going to do it for me.’”

Prentice, a Paterson, N.J., native whose first job was at a hot dog stand called Johnny & Hanges, later helped start the trading desk for financial firm Pershing. He made the jump to entrepreneurship after business associates shared an idea from a Georgia surgeon, Dr. William Pannell, who sits on Signati’s board, for a kinder and gentler vasectomy.

To turn that idea into reality, Prentice raised $5.9 million from friends, family, and angel investors. The medical device was designed under contract at Veranex, a private research lab in Providence, and is being built by contract manufacturer Global Interconnect in Bourne.

Providence-based Signati runs on a shoestring. Prentice works out of the law office of Brian Dougan, the company’s legal counsel. The company has a small staff of unpaid consultants, along with a couple of paid employees, who work remotely from around the country.

Signati got the FDA nod to begin clinical trials later this month on eight volunteers at the Louisiana State University medical center in New Orleans. The company could market the device and procedure as early as this fall if FDA regulators deem it safe and effective, Prentice said.

Prentice understands why many men are reluctant to undergo vasectomies. While today’s procedure is relatively simple and can later be reversed, some men experience post-operative pain and a small number get infections or immune reactions.

Patients are advised to rest for at least 24 hours after surgery and avoid sports, lifting, and heavy work for at least a week. (Urologists say they often see an uptick of vasectomies during the March Madness basketball tournament.)

Years ago, when Prentice went to a doctor in New Jersey to have a vasectomy, the doctor couldn’t perform the procedure that day. He never went back.

“I’m a typical man,” he said. “I was scared. Because I heard these horror stories.”

With the Signati procedure, Prentice is willing to set his earlier qualms aside.

“When I tell you that I will do this live on TV to prove how easy it is,” he said, “it’s because it’s important for men to open their eyes and not make their wife or partner go through a [tubal ligation] procedure.”