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North Shore venture runs digital race

| Tuesday, April 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Omnyx COO Michael Meissner works with project manager Sarah Planica on Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at the company's offices on the North Shore.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Omnyx interim CEO Jim LaFrance (left) and senior vice president Michael Montalto with one of the company's digital pathology scanners at the company's North Shore offices on Tuesday, April 16, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Omnyx COO Michael Meissner works with project manager Sarah Planica on Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at the company's offices on the North Shore.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Software engineer Josh Riggenbach runs a meeting at Omnyx on the North Shore on Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

Every day in thousands of medical centers around the world, tissue samples are fixed to glass slides, stained and examined under a microscope — a procedure for diagnosing cancer and other diseases that has remained virtually unchanged for decades.

Even as digital imaging has revolutionized X-rays, MRIs and other areas of medicine, pathology continues to be labor-intensive and analog.

That is about to change. And a Pittsburgh company is among those racing to introduce technology on a wide scale in the United States that could make cancer diagnosis more efficient and effective.

“We're in an exciting juncture in our history,” said Jim LaFrance, interim CEO of Omnyx LLC, a five-year-old North Shore company developing digital pathology systems.

The 50-50 joint venture between UPMC and General Electric's Healthcare division this year landed its first sale, shipping a system to a Swiss customer.

“We've been in dress rehearsal; now we're out in front of the audience,” said LaFrance, a GE executive who is filling in as Omnyx's CEO until an ongoing search for a permanent CEO is completed in coming months.

Digitizing pathology work will make it more time-efficient for pathologists to view images in multiple locations, said Dr. George Michalopoulos, chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine. It will enable sharing of images among multiple pathologists easier, increasing the speed of second opinions.

And with digital images comes computer-aided diagnosis, which Michalopoulos said can help pathologists use their time more effectively by letting a computer analyze slides first and flag images that look suspicious for further review by a doctor.

“All of these things are tasks done today (by people) that are time consuming that digital pathology can help,” he said.

LaFrance and his team were careful about making claims about Omnyx's technology and capabilities during a recent interview in their offices on Isabella Street — the company has started the several-year process of gaining Food and Drug Administration approval for its system for use in primary diagnoses of cancer.

No company has won U.S. approval yet, and several companies along with Omnyx are hoping to be the first into a market that could be worth $1 billion to $2 billion a year by 2030.

“Definitely, it's a race,” LaFrance said.

The market for digital pathology systems has been slow to develop relative to other medical imaging because of the large file sizes needed, Michalopoulos said. Each image can be multiple gigabytes, requiring huge amounts of storage and computer processing power to handle.

“That's why pathology has not evolved quite as rapidly,” Michalopoulos said. “Even one square inch has more pixels” than a single MRI image.

But advances in computer technology means, “over the next two to three years we'll be seeing more digital pathology coming in, and it'll become the standard pathology tool.”

The digital imaging technology — essentially the hardware in a digital pathology system — is far enough along to capture the high-resolution images needed for analysis, Michalopoulos said. The key is perfecting the analysis software.

Omnyx is transitioning from its early focus on hardware to spending more time developing the software of its system, LaFrance said.

“The scanners are basically done,” he said.

It is hiring more software engineers and looking at moving offices in Pittsburgh to have more space for new employees, he said. The company has 100 employees.

Michael Montalto, Omnyx senior vice president of clinical and regulatory affairs, said it's unique in GE's history to form a joint venture with an academic medical institution like UPMC.

But, the largest health system in Western Pennsylvania is a leading center for cancer treatment and research and employs some of the “original pioneers” in digital pathology research, he said.

“It was a natural fit,” he said.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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