New imaging firm gives Arizona researchers chance to intercept cancer early

April 9, 2010

By hammersmith

VisionGate, a Seattle company founded by Alan Nelson, director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, is moving its headquarters to the Phoenix Biomedical Campus. Under an agreement with the City of Phoenix, a variety of Arizona laboratory and clinical researchers will be granted access to the highly accurate imaging device that VisionGate has developed.

“This is really going to further the medical research efforts for everybody,” said Jason Harris, deputy director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Department, in the Arizona Republic. He said that a survey of local researchers yielded some 50 statements of need for the technology.

Around 14 VisionGate employees will relocate to Phoenix by this fall, occupying lab and office space in a City of Phoenix-owned facility that also houses the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the International Genomics Consortium. Dr. Nelson said in the Phoenix Business Journal that the company hopes to have 40 employees, including a president to manage day-to-day operations, within 18 months.

Dr. Nelson said in the Republic that Phoenix–where he was raised and graduated from Camelback High School–offers a good fit for young bioscience companies.

“Even though Phoenix has had a tremendous hit in this economic downturn, it has not made a dent in the entrepreneurial vitality of Phoenix,” he said in the Republic.

To cement the deal bringing VisionGate to the Biomedical Campus, the City of Phoenix spent $1.2 million from its Genomics Facilities fund to purchase two of the company’s Cell-CT instruments. The devices can generate high-resolution three-dimensional images of intact individual cells, which enable researchers to measure cellular features and processes that correspond closely to certain diseases, especially lung cancer.

The Cell-CT devices, which VisionGate will operate on behalf of the city for five years, will be available to local researchers at hospitals, universities, public-health agencies, and institutions like TGen. ASU already has one of the instruments itself, purchased in early 2009 for research on single-cell biology.

Robert Green, president and CEO of the Arizona BioIndustry Association, said that VisionGate’s arrival will give Arizona researchers a competitive advantage.

“He who has the best technology can make the greatest of advances,” Green said in the Republic. “Our scientists will be able to look at cells like nobody else can.”

In Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, released by Battelle in late 2002, bio-imaging was identified as a primary scientific discipline that supports all three of Arizona’s core competency areas—cancer research, neuroscience, and bioengineering. Those areas, the report suggested, present the best opportunity for Arizona to achieve national prominence in a relatively short period of time.

The VisionGate technology holds particular promise for researchers trying to reduce the mortality rate for lung cancer, which kills more people than any other cancer and is notoriously difficult to stop if not caught early. Screening is rarely performed by clinicians, though, in part because most standard screening methods, such as chest X-rays and computed tomography (CT), have difficulty distinguishing between cancerous and benign lesions, and fail to detect pre-cancerous lesions.

VisionGate’s instrument is far more accurate, according to a study presented in August, 2009 at the World Conference on Lung Cancer. Its automated system, the study found, demonstrated near-perfect specificity–avoiding false positives–while achieving 90 percent sensitivity for patients whose sputum samples contain lung-cancer cells.

“VisionGate is going to be the first company that is actually able to detect the disease early enough so that you can completely reverse the risk profile and save more lives,” Dr. Nelson said in the Business Journal.

While the Cell-CT device is already available for purchase by university researchers, the biggest leap for VisionGate commercially will be FDA approval–currently pending–to use the instrument for clinical diagnostic purposes. Once that approval is secured, doctors will be able to send sputum samples to VisionGate for testing in its lab.

VisionGate “is being considered by Goldman Sachs to take it public,” Dr. Nelson said in the Business Journal, “but we have to wait for the markets to improve.”

Dr. Nelson guided his last cancer-diagnostics company, NeoPath Inc., through an initial public offering in 1996. It was acquired by another firm in 2000, at which point he began work on VisionGate.

For more information:

Pact lures cancer-screening device maker,” Arizona Republic, 03/28/2010

Seattle biotech firm, VisionGate Inc., moving HQ to Valley,” Phoenix Business Journal, 03/19/2010

Lung Cancer: Diagnostic Tools And Innovative Therapies Improve Patient Prognosis,” Science Daily, 08/02/2009

Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute Acquires VisionGate’s Cell-CT 3-D Cell Imaging Platform,” ASU news release, 02/26/2009