Organic Research Corp. uses ‘digital pathology’ to pinpoint liver disease

By Lindsay Bouras


Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease affects 90 million Americans. It can lead to permanent liver dysfunction and even death. Although there are a number of clinical trials related to the disease, there are no pharmaceuticals approved for treatment.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD, refers to the accumulation of fat in the liver of people who rarely drink alcohol or who do not drink at all. It is often found in those who are overweight or obese. This has become a concern specifically in the United States because of the high rate of obesity.

Organic Research Corp. is developing pathology software that will impact the efficiency of detecting NAFLD, called the Digital Liver Pathology Aid. The company presented to potential investors and others Nov. 12 during the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium in Madison.

Scott Vanderbeck, the founder and president of Organic Research and the principal researcher on the team that developed the digital tool at UW-Milwaukee, described how it works: Computers use images of liver tissue known to contain disease then using machine learning, an area of artificial intelligence, compare them to recorded images of liver tissue to find patterns of NAFLD. This allows for a more effective, efficient approach of detecting NAFLD compared to the current, dated use of microscopes.

“A software package assisting doctors to quantify NAFLD will ensure clinical research is not subject to human variability and provide continuous, accurate and reliable measurement of disease markers,” Vanderbeck said.

Organic Research Corp. is focused on creating value for investors. The digital liver pathology tool is expected to be in a market size similar to diabetes. As Citi analyst Jonathan Eckard said earlier this year, NAFLD is “possibly the last untapped mega-blockbuster commercial setting” for pharmaceutical companies. With that market in mind, NAFLD has attracted research dollars, allowing pathology to move to a digital platform.

However, the pathology isn’t quite there yet.

“We are in the early stages of a technology revolution of digital pathology. Pathology is still using many of the same methods as (were) used 100 years ago,” Vanderbeck said.

If Organic Research Corp. and its product attract investment dollars, Vanderbeck would like to bring in more scientists to speed up development and expand offerings to other diseases that will benefit from digital pathology.

“Other old practice companies are not focused on liver disease. We have the clear advantage because we are way ahead of other companies if they decided to start now,” Vanderbeck said.

Organic Research is a niche, small shop based in Milwaukee and company team members have backgrounds in software engineering, medical sales, marketing and legal matters.

Currently, Organic Research is running experiments to expand the digital pathology tool to animal rodent models with research partners at Indiana University and Purdue. Vanderbeck is confident the company can build algorithms with wounds and tears – extending the digital pathology tool to other research. Pathologists claim that the animal experiments are too early to decide the full impact of the device.

“We want to be first to market with the Digital Liver Pathology Aid,” Vanderbeck said.

In addition to its selection for the Early Stage Symposium, the company was a finalist in the 2014 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

— Bouras is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.