Strip's RedPath diagnostics lab fights cancers with technologies

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It's easy to miss RedPath Integrated Pathology Inc. when driving through Pittsburgh's Strip District.

The entrance to the ultra-modern molecular diagnostics lab that occupies two floors of a renovated warehouse faces an alley. But a growing number of physicians are taking their battle against pancreatic cancer to RedPath.

Established in 2004, the company grew out of a University of Pittsburgh pathologist's drive to marry cutting-edge science and technologies to benefit cancer patients much earlier than otherwise possible.

When Dr. Sydney Finkelstein, co-founder and chief scientific officer at RedPath, began working with DNA at Pitt in the 1990s, he suspected it could change the way in which pathologists investigate disease. Analyzing DNA, he saw that diseases that look identical under the microscope actually may be very different and require different treatments.

In 2004, he and a team of associates joined to form RedPath in an attempt to bring the fruits of the genomic revolution to physicians through the patented PathFinderTG technology. Today the company employs 39 researchers, technicians and sales associates.

"It takes a lot of resources and focus and a dedicated group of people with very different skills to make this work. And then I can't forget my wife. She provided important capital, and she's sacrificed a lot," Finkelstein said, noting that his wife, Patricia, worked in the lab during the long early days at RedPath.

By drilling down to the molecular level and running DNA tests, RedPath said, its PathFinderTG can document the presence or absence of cancer in very small samples.

The ability to analyze minute samples has become increasingly important as new scanning technologies reveal the presence of tiny nodules in the pancreas that allow only the smallest amounts of fluid to be withdrawn for testing.

"The image and X-ray are increasingly important, but looking at those small samples they can draw through the microscope didn't give me the information I need. It left an information gap," Finkelstein said.

By filling in that gap and determining whether a pancreatic nodule is cancerous, RedPath can help physicians act to remove a pancreas with early cancer or avoid unnecessary invasive surgery.

The tests RedPath performs can take up to two weeks. Last year, the company was performing about 200 to 250 tests a month for physicians from institutions including Allegheny General Hospital, George Washington University Hospital in Washington, and Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, plus community hospitals throughout the Pittsburgh region.

Cancer centers across the country are interested in technology that can detect cancer earlier and are evaluating the possibilities with molecular diagnostics, said Dr. Peter J. Allen, a cancer surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Allen has used RedPath's test, but he said he's not convinced of its usefulness as an early diagnostic tool because it has not been tested enough.

"The question is: 'Is this test valuable as a diagnostic test?'" Allen said. "It needs a very rigorous validation study."

Privately held RedPath has attracted early infusions of capital from two local public-private initiatives: Innovation Works and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse.

Two multimillion-dollar infusions of private equity also fueled the company's expansion.

Last year, a French company, Exxon Hitt, planned to acquire the company for $22.5 million, but the deal fell apart, even as Medicare approved RedPath's pancreatic tests, which carry a price tag of about $4,000 per person, for reimbursement.

Since that time, business has increased by about 25 to 30 percent, said RedPath spokesman Mike Carelli. The Exxon Hitt deal was a learning experience, Carelli and Finkelstein said, but the Medicare approval was a time for celebration.

"It was an endorsement sanctioning the significance that this is having for patient care. It was an important milestone to be able to bring new technology forward and make it available to physicians," Finkelstein said.

And late last year, the Internal Revenue Service, under the Affordable Care Act, awarded RedPath $488,958 in grants to continue development of its technology.

This year Dr. Dennis M. Smith Jr. was named CEO, replacing Mark Myslinski, who will serve on the board of RedPath.

Rich Lunak, CEO of Innovation Works, an early investor in RedPath, said the company took its services to market quicker than many biomedical startups.

"It's a very innovative life science company. The whole area of genomics and individual medicine is very important, especially in the area of cancer where they are working," Lunak said.

Finkelstein predicted the kind of testing RedPath performs will expand to a broader range of illnesses.

"It has broad applicability. And I'd like to see us working with the universities and sharing our experiences. The more of that that happens, the better it is for Pittsburgh," he said.

Additional Information:

RedPath Integrated Pathology

Headquarters: 2515 Liberty Ave., Strip District

Employees: 39

Services: A national specialty laboratory that provides complex cancer diagnostic testing for pathologists, oncologists and clinicians using patented molecular-based DNA analysis. Focuses on early diagnosis for difficult cases where cancer is suspected.

Co-founders: Mary Del Brady, former president and CEO; Dr. Sydney Finkelstein, chief scientific officer

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