Now, years, they have formed molecular imaging
Now, with advances in genetic research, the makers of medical imaging equipment are retooling their cameras to spot tiny changes within cells that signal the start of a disease — the point at which doctors have the best shot at a cure. “It’s totally different from the way we take care of patients now,” said Dr. Samuel Wickline, professor of medicine, physical and biomedical engineering at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri. “Molecular imaging will enable you to detect the early stages of disease.” For patients, it offers the promise of finding diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer years before clear symptoms develop. For pharmaceutical companies, it promises to speed drugs to market by letting scientists see whether they work within days, rather than taking weeks or months. “The promise is to track and detect diseases before they actually manifest as an illness in the patient,” said Dr.
Eric Russell, chairman of radiology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. ‘The next horizon’Molecular imaging combines gene and protein-based research with new diagnostic drugs that zero in on diseased cells. The drugs are tagged with radioactive tracers that show up as a bright spot on imaging equipment, creating a microscope that can see into the human body. Because molecular imaging depends on chemical agents to enhance the pictures taken on imaging cameras, imaging hardware makers like GE Medical Systems, Philips Medical Systems Inc. and Siemens Medical Solutions are rapidly assembling drug research capabilities.
In the last two years, they have formed molecular imaging departments, acquired speciality device makers and forged strategic partnerships with makers of diagnostic and therapeutic drugs. “All of the imaging companies have figured out that this is the next horizon for their internal research and development efforts,” Wickline said. At GE Medical, the focus on molecular imaging in the past two years amounts to a “sea change,” said Eric Stahre, general manger of genomics and molecular imaging at the $10 billion unit of General Electric.
Traditionally a hardware maker, GE recently hired its own team of molecular biologists and biochemists to study new chemical targets for finding and tracing disease. It also is working with London-based Amersham, the world’s largest developer of chemical agents used for imaging, to develop chemical markers that could provide an early diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease. And in November, it bought Enhanced Vision Systems, a Canadian company that makes MicroCT imaging systems used in drug research on animals. “We’re going after this and pharmaceutical companies are going after it, and diagnostic pharmaceutical companies such as Amersham are going after this.
To be able to speak the same language was very important to us,” Stahre said. Hybrid treatmentsMolecular imaging builds on the rapid adoption of positron emission tomography (PET) within the last five years. The technology uses radioactive tracers to detect changes in organ function. Sales of PET scanners and PET CT scanners — which scan organ function and anatomical structure — grew by 60 percent last year, according to data collected by the National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association. In PET scanning, doctors look for areas of increased absorption of sugar, which indicates rapid cell growth. PET’s success has led scientists to develop chemical agents that can spot more refined disease markers.
Philips Medical Systems, a unit of Royal Philips Electronics, is working with Thesius Imaging on Apomate, a compound that can show whether chemotherapy treatments are working. The drug is based on the natural process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. When a cell dies, it turns inside out, exposing a protein binding site.
The body then sends a protein called annexin, which binds to the dying cell, tagging it for destruction by the immune system. Thesius, a unit of North American Scientific, is developing a radioactive tracer that attaches to the dying cells. “One of the things we know chemotherapy will do, if it works, is to kill cancer cells,” said Dr. David Rollo, chief medical officer for nuclear medicine at Philips. If the chemotherapy works and cells begin dying, he said, the Apomate will concentrate at the site of the cancer and will light up on imaging equipment. CIBC World Markets analyst John Calcagnini said Theseus expects to start a major clinical trial in the spring, in conjunction with the National Cancer Institute.
If successful, he said the drug eventually could generate sales of $1.5 billion. Although some products might be on the market within the next three to four years, companies say the real impact of molecular imaging won’t be felt for another decade.
“The problem is not whether it will come,” said Erich Reinhardt, chief executive officer of Siemens Medical Solutions, said. “It’s more when.”