Maintaining body water balance

2015-12-13 : 10:06
InBody CEO Cha Ki-chul is the developer of the world’s first and most accurate body composition analyzer that is capable of measuring water, fat, proteins and minerals in each of the five body parts — arms, legs, and torso.
/ Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul

InBody is increasingly used for clinical purposes

By Jung Min-ho, Kim Eil-chul

Edema, or swelling, is an abnormal accumulation of watery fluid in the tissues of the body. It is a common sign of health problems such as an infection or disease.

Information about patients’ edema status is particularly important for managing certain illnesses, including heart failure, that pose a high risk of edema-related emergencies.

The world’s most accurate way to measure the level of edema is with an InBody machine. A patient simply stands on the machine and holds onto its handles on the sides, and within two minutes, the machine shows the locations and amounts of water, fat, proteins and minerals in the body.

“For now, most customers use our products mainly as body fat analyzers, and 99 percent of our revenues come from them,” InBody CEO Cha Ki-chul, 57, said in an interview. “But the future of our company may depend on its advanced technology for measuring body water, which is an important clinical use.”

Although InBody is still mainly used at fitness center, it has already been used for many patients with chronic kidney disease. After receiving hemodialysis, a process of removing waste and excess water from the blood, medical technicians have to check the extracellular water ratio, or ECW, body water that is not inside cells, to ensure that the body water level has returned to a state of balance.

The device can provide doctors with quantitative information about patients’ total body water, ECW, intracellular water and ECW ratio, which can assist in their health management.

“For researchers who are working on how water in certain body parts affects people with certain conditions such as cirrhosis patients, our devices can also be very helpful,” Cha said.

In 2010, researchers at Kurume University in Japan published the paper, “Oxidized Albumin is Associated with Water Retention and Severity of Disease in Patients with Chronic Liver Disease,” which detailed their study that demonstrated on association between the factors with InBody.

He said an increasing number of clinical researchers ― mostly in Japan ― use InBody products for their work. According to the body composition analyzer manufacturer, its products were used for 48 studies by the Japanese Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition alone in 2014.

Cha said many of his customers are medical institutions in Japan, including Tokyo University, Kyoto University and the Kagawa Education Institute of Nutrition.

In 2013, researchers at Kyoto University published their study on sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, entitled “Impact of Sarcopenia on Survival in Patients Undergoing Living Donor Liver Transplantation.”

According to Cha, few medical researchers outside Japan use InBody devices for research purposes, which is why he believes his company has not yet reached its full potential in the medical field.

“What we developed is something like a thermometer, which can be used for so many different purposes,” he said.

“It will take some time to make people understand the true value of our technology because what we are talking about here is creating a new market. However, I’m sure that they will realize its value eventually.”

What makes InBody stand out from the other body composition analyzers is its method of measurement using multi-frequencies.

He noted that the earlier technology that uses a single frequency at 50 kilohertz was unreliable because the method overlooks the fact that the electric current frequency affects its ability to pass through cell membranes.

In contrast, InBody is able to use multiple broadband frequencies in the range of 1 to 1,000 kilohertz, he said.

Cha speaks during an interview.

How the ‘unbeatable’ technology was born

InBody is the world’s first body composition analyzer that is capable of measuring water, fat, proteins and minerals in each of the five main body parts ― arms, legs, and torso, with a margin of error of less than 3 percent.

Before Cha developed the groundbreaking technology in 1996, other devices were only able to analyze the composition for the body as a whole and not separately for its various parts. Also, they were less accurate, with a margin of error of around 10 percent.

“That made it difficult for researchers to study certain fields because they could not collect reliable data about body composition,” he said. “They wanted more accurate and effective machines.”

While Cha was working as a postdoctoral fellow under Prof. Douglas Wilmore at Harvard Medical School from 1992 to 1995, many doctors and nutritionists tried to develop a more reliable machine, but they struggled.

“The mission was challenging because it required a deep understanding about both the human body and the machine,” he said. “For me, it was an opportunity to draw on my knowledge to make something meaningful because I studied mechanical engineering and bioengineering in my graduate programs.”

After returning to Korea in 1996, he immediately established BioSpace, which was renamed InBody in 2014. He only had 50 million won ($43,000). Nonetheless, he was confident and ready.

“The most difficult part was to build trust with potential customers,” Cha said. “It took five years to sell the first product.” Meanwhile, he also had to deal with patent litigations with Tanita, a Japanese rival. He won the battle eventually but lost half of the money he had.

Then, his business took off.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the company’s technology in 2003, which greatly helped its growth. Today, InBody is the world’s leading maker of body composition analyzers.

The company’s products are exported to tens of thousands of gyms, hospitals, schools and government facilities in more than 70 countries, including the United States, Japan and Germany.

Among its high-profile clients are the U.S. Navy Seals, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, West Point, Johns Hopkins Hospital, GE Healthcare, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Google, Boeing and Columbia University.

Nearly 70 percent of InBody’s revenues come from overseas sales, though the company still boasts majority domestic market share of nearly 80 percent.

Cha said he will continue to ramp up efforts to cement its lead in overseas markets. From 2012 to 2013, its exports to China grew about 30 percent.

InBody is still a young company, and most of its employees are just in their early 30s. It would be too early and even pointless to speculate on how far they can go. “But our dream is big,” Cha said.