WisBusiness: Collaboration helps make medical imaging a big business for Wisconsin

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

The Badger State is home to a thriving, billion-dollar medical imaging industry that reverberates throughout the state’s economy, providing jobs at companies large and small.

And that enterprise is only going to grow and spawn more technologies, thanks largely to a well-established collaboration between UW-Madison scientists and Waukesha-based GE Healthcare, officials from both institutions said Tuesday at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon.

“This has been very fruitful … a ‘no brainer,'” said Mike Harsh, vice president and chief technology officer at GE Healthcare, a $17 billion arm of General Electric.

His division employs roughly 6,500 people in Wisconsin, including 2,800 engineers and scientists. It also has 1,100 in-state suppliers who design and build sub-systems that go into scanners and other products, many of which are exported abroad.

“This partnership between our research arm and Madison has been fantastic,” he said. “It allows us to get some expertise from GE to the university around the engineering and system design.”

But more important for GE, he said, is having access to the “clinical and deep scientific domain expertise from the university,” he said. “You can dream this stuff up … and do phantoms, but you don’t know until you’ve actually imaged in a clinical setting.”

The two institutions also have worked together to seek joint federal research grants, he explained.

“We’re able to take some big, massive swings here on some technology we couldn’t do by ourselves,” he said. “Could I dream of putting $10 million into a project, thinking that maybe it won’t work, but I’ll learn some cool stuff in the process?

“Probably not, but through the correct partnerships between the university and government agencies we can really take some (big) things on,” he said.

Tom Grist, chairman of the radiology department at the UW Medical School, ran through a long list of discoveries that had turned into either medical imaging equipment made by GE Healthcare or resulted in new companies, such as Madison’s TomoTherapy.

Grist, who holds 16 patents, praised colleagues such as Chuck Mistretta, who led the team that developed digital subtraction angiography, which was commercially introduced in 1980 and is one of the top royalty earners of all the patents issued by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Since then, Mistretta has made many other discoveries – include three-dimensional MRI – that have improved imaging techniques for the brain, heart, spine, lung and other parts of the body, Grist noted. Mistretta now holds 33 patents, with another 13 pending.

Grist said a key to getting breakthroughs out into the hospitals and clinics where they can help patients has been partnering with GE Healthcare scientists. That has been done by using GE platforms that helped turn the research into practical tools.

GE has three scientists who work at UW-Madison, collaborating with the university’s imaging scientists and engineers.

And sometimes, Grist noted, the breakthroughs flow the opposite direction, with GE researchers bringing their ideas to colleagues in Madison for fine-tuning and eventual commercialization.

But not all the discoveries have gone to large companies, he noted. In some cases, GE chooses not to develop certain products, so smaller companies take ideas and run with them, Grist said.

One of those is Madison-based Marvel Medtech, a start-up founded by engineer Ray Harter. The company was created to help reliably diagnose and treat breast disease using the advantages of real-time imaging coupled with minimally-invasive interventional tools and capabilities.

Another example is TomoTherapy, co-founded by medical physics professor Rock Mackie in 1997. The company makes large radiation therapy machines to treat cancers.

Mackie, director of medical devices at the Morgridge Institute for Technology, also co-founded Geometrics Corporation (now part of Phillips Medical), which developed a highly successful radiotherapy treatment planning system.

Other breakthroughs are in the pipeline, Grist said, including imaging probes that can highlight cancer cells and be used for both diagnosis and therapy. Compounds discovered by UW-Madison radiology professor Jamey Weichert have been successful in mouse trials and seem to work in human tests, he said.

“This is huge and the economic impact could be very large,” Grist said of Weichert’s research. The professor started Cellectar, Inc., which merged last year with publicly traded Novelos Therapeutics of Boston. The new combined company’s headquarters remains in Madison.

Grist said more discoveries will be coming from the Wisconsin Institute for Medical Research at the UW-Madison , where the bottom two floors of the tower-like building are dedicated to imaging efforts.

He said a second tower is being built and UW officials plan to ask the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for financing to push an incubator to help create imaging start-ups.

“We’re excited about radiology, medical physics, improving human health and the collaboration that will lead to new products,” he told his audience.