Foreseeing Disaster

Diagnostic Photonics innovates an end to repeat surgery procedures

Diagnostic Photonics seeks to make a product both effective and appealing – something doctors will feel chic holding.     Photo courtesy of Thompson McClellan Photography

Diagnostic Photonics seeks to make a product both effective and appealing – something doctors will feel chic holding. 

Photo courtesy of Thompson McClellan Photography

 
 

A 2012 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of 2,206 women who had breast cancer lumpectomies, 22.9 percent had undergone more than one procedure.

It is not the choice of the patient to sustain the surgery twice. Lumpectomies, a less extreme treatment for breast cancer than mastectomies, removes only the cancerous tissue in the breast. However, in more than a few cases, surrounding tissues left in the body still have cancerous cells. The procedure then must be completed again.

Many patients opt for lumpectomies in seeking the least traumatic procedure. But secondary procedures are often more traumatic than the first. Two men realized this insensitivity and sought to make it better: Stephen Boppart, M.D., Ph.D., who specializes in biomedical imaging technologies, and P. Scott Carney, who has a background in computer engineering and optics, began working on ways to pre-emptively find these remaining tissues, and, in 2008, founded Diagnostic Photonics.

Diagnostic Photonics, a medical startup based at MATTER, a community of healthcare innovators, in Chicago, IL, has created a device that uses near-infrared light waves to construct high resolution images of tissue, in the hopes that these images be used in the operating room to help surgeons distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells.

“It’s not red light, green light,” said founding investor and Chief Business Officer of Diagnostic Photonics, Kathryn Hyer. “It shows an image, and it’s up to the doctor to analyze the image from there.”

The device, aptly named the Foresee (4C for short), is meant to be used in tandem with the doctor’s workflow. In the middle of surgery, the doctor can scan the tissue with the infrared light rays, and then algorithms work quickly to recreate an image of the tissue in real time. It is fast, efficient, and most importantly, it fits seamlessly into the procedure process. Only half a day of training is required to become proficient with the equipment.

“Most clinicians have been receptive,” said Hyer. “We have learned from doctors that have used it that it could be used in other cancer surgeries.” But, for the startup, “the bigger problem is funding.”

Within the medical space, funding is extremely hard to achieve. Reimbursement is “a big issue in medical healthcare in general,” said Hyer, but for Diagnostic Photonics, the process is especially hard. Because the device is meant to be affordable, it works within what is called the “razor blade” business model. Little money is made on the parent device: most of the money, instead, comes from the purchase of the sterile, disposable portion of the device that must be replaced after each procedure. 

The 4C is protected by patents here in the U.S. and in Europe. It has clearance from the FDA, and, according to Hyer, has been trialed by a few doctors. Yet, the process is far from over: in the coming years, the company seeks to redesign the device.

Though small, Diagnostic Photonics seeks to change the medical surgery game.    Courtesy of Diagnostic Photonics

Though small, Diagnostic Photonics seeks to change the medical surgery game.

Courtesy of Diagnostic Photonics

“Much like an ultrasound or other medical equipment you see in the operating room, it’s not very sexy,” said Hyer, of the current model of the device. The goal is to make the device sleeker and smaller, and to reduce the cost of manufacturing by 50 percent by the end of 2018.

“An idea is worthless unless you put in the time and effort,” said Scott Drucker, founder Supply Clinic, a site for dentistry equipment, and fellow innovator at MATTER. The team of Diagnostic Photonics definitely understands this -- even with an already functioning device, they don’t plan to commercialize the product until 2020, with the device adopted into the U.S. medical market in late 2021.

The team is small: there are only 8-10 employees, some of whom work part-time. The market, too, is not void of competitors. There are other methods that get the same job done, including one that uses glowing injections to help doctors distinguish healthy tissue from the bad.

“There are two things the competition really tells you,” said Hyer. “One, you are on a problem. Two, you need to stay ahead of what others are doing.” Sticking to the timeline will be a prevailing challenge as the company continues to move forward.

A lot of work remains. But the team is driven by a few key principles which keep their motivation high even in times of tedious iteration.

“Better outcomes, lower costs, and improving the lives of those we can -- those are our principles in healthcare,” said Hyer.

By Audrey Valbuena