A medical device designed to assist in the diagnosis and early treatment of a painful, disfiguring side effect of cancer treatment, developed in the lab of Petit Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience researcher Brandon Dixon, is closer to commercialization thanks to venture funding from the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA).
LymphaTech, a company launched by Dixon and Bioengineering Ph.D. student Mike Weiler, recently received Phase I funding through GRA Ventures, a non-profit catalyst for seeding and shaping companies based on university research.
Dixon’s research has focused on the diagnosis and treatment of lymphedema, the chronic swelling of arms or legs caused by cancer treatments (especially for breast cancer) that affect the lymphatic system. Lymphedema is difficult to diagnose and incurable. But it can be held in check if discovered early. That’s the gap LymphaTech aims to fill.
“Studies suggest that if you catch it early enough, then standard patient care, like compression therapy, can prevent lymphedema from getting severe, or even reverse the swelling to a point where you may be fine,” says Dixon, assistant professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “We know that if you wait too long, it’s irreversible.”
Two years ago, Dixon’s lab was awarded a $2 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the mechanical forces within lymphedema. Around the same time, Weiler was entering the Georgia Institute of Technology’s TI:GER (Technological Innovation: Generation Economic Results) Program, “exploring the commercialization potential of lymphedema diagnostic devices.”
So, LymphaTech evolved as a TI:GER team project for five grad students – a researcher (Weiler), plus two business students and two law students. They won a number of national and international competitions for fledgling businesses last year. And over time, they’ve shifted their technological approach. Originally, the device they had in mind was like a blood pressure cuff for the lymphatic system, a marked improvement over the traditional diagnostic method, a tape measure.
“We were in the right ballpark from the start, but we may have over-engineered the solution originally, ” says Weiler, whose team conducted more than 250 interviews with clinicians and patients, who talked about the challenges with diagnosis, monitoring and management of lymphedema.
The cuff device remains a long-term goal and Dixon’s lab has secured a provisional patent (and filed for a full patent). But the more immediate problem, and what GRA is funding, is limb volume measurement.
Weiler, based in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, says, “very simply, it’s a 3D depth camera, a very small camera type device that you can put on the dresser or the bathroom sink or desk, and stand in front of it while it does its calculations automatically.” The device would link to a clinician who can keep track of the patient’s lymphedema or limb size remotely.
Along with the new approach, the LympaTech team has added new intellectual muscle as well. Joining the team is a new collaborator, Sebastian Pokutta, assistant professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), a mathematician who is developing machine learning and signal processing algorithms and protocols in his lab to improve the device’s volume tracking abilities.
The GRA Ventures Phase 1 funding, Dixon says, will allow the fledgling company to set up preclinical testing with lymphedema clinics in the area, collecting data on patients and making comparisons between standard diagnostics (the tape measure) and the LymphaTech way.
The funding, in the form of a grant, covers June 1 until December, so there is a deadline and a clear objective concerning the feasibility of the system.
“By December, we want to have a subset of data on patients that we’ve tracked, then we can think about going into Phase 2, a full-blown clinical trial,” Dixon says. “Our big picture goal right now is to put accurate self-diagnosis in the hands of patients. It has to be super easy, fast, and affordable.”
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