UNL technology leads to startup to improve PET imaging

jbrehm2, April 6, 2012 | View original publication

UNL technology leads to startup to improve PET imaging

A new startup company will use a process developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln by Professor Stephen DiMagno to improve medical imaging.

            The new company, Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals Inc., will use the discovery to develop new imaging agents for use in diagnosis and management of disease, and to help other companies better manufacture imaging agents for positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

            DiMagno, a fluorine chemist who began researching this area in 2005, is Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals' co-founder.

            NUtech Ventures, the nonprofit organization responsible for building partnerships between the University of Nebraska and the private sector, worked to evaluate the commercial opportunity and licensed the intellectual property to the startup for development.

            Positron emission tomography is a nuclear medicine imaging technique that uses specialized scanners to provide images using radiotracers whose distribution reflects specific metabolic activity in the body at the time of injection. PET images provide information about the function and metabolism of the body's organs, in contrast to computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging, which show the body's anatomy and structure. PET is used mainly to study patients with cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

            DiMagno found a general way to attach the widely used PET radioactive isotope, 18F, to many different carrier molecules. This isotope acts as a beacon to allow the specific metabolic fate of the compound to be viewed by a PET scanner. Unlike most stable drugs, PET imaging agents tagged with short-lived radioactive isotopes like 18F lose their effectiveness after only a few hours. As a result, these imaging agents need to be produced rapidly and near a hospital or imaging center where they are used.

            "Our methodology allows us to create more potent imaging agents more rapidly, reliably and in high yield. These agents were previously unknown or were very difficult to synthesize," DiMagno said. "Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals' technology should boost the availability of existing experimental PET agents and support the more efficient development of new PET imaging agents."

            Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals may also help expand the types of diseases that PET scans can diagnose, leading to more effective treatments and better management for these disorders. The company's technology is expected to produce an equivalent imaging signal from lower doses of PET pharmaceuticals  than is possible using current methods, DiMagno said. The higher potency (known as "specific activity") of PET agents produced with the new technology could reduce the risk of side effects and significantly lower costs to patients and insurance companies.

            Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals is working with NUtech Ventures, several academic medical centers and manufacturers of imaging agents to advance commercialization.

            "UNL and NUtech have gone out of their way to encourage entrepreneurship to make this technology available to clinical imaging centers around the country," DiMagno said.

            NUtech also helped recruit Boston-based physician, scientist and attorney Allan Green to partner with DiMagno. Green is the company's president and chief executive officer.

            "We knew this technology had significant potential based on initial assessments by industry experts," said David Conrad, executive director of NUtech Ventures. "By matching Dr. DiMagno's scientific expertise with Dr. Green's knowledge of medical imaging and the FDA regulatory environment, Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals is well positioned to make a big impact in medical imaging."

            DiMagno was the lead on one of 23 teams nationwide to receive an inaugural National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) grant in late 2011. The grant provided the team access to national experts on technology startups and additional training in the latest concepts in entrepreneurial management.

            University Technology Development Corp. provided proof-of-concept funding to help move DiMagno's imaging agents out of the lab and into clinical trials. Supporting the transfer of university technology to the marketplace, UTDC is a University of Nebraska affiliate and the parent company of NUtech Ventures.

            Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals will house its research and development facility in Lincoln. The company will also have an office in Cambridge, Mass., to support business and finance.