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A new look into lungs

A Plymouth company is developing technology that uses sensors and 3D mapping to try to detect lung cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages.

By THOMAS LEE, Star Tribune

Last update: December 26, 2007 - 10:55 PM

Dan Sullivan has worked his magic with faulty hearts. Can he do the same with lungs?

A former top executive at SciMed Life Systems and Vascular Science, Sullivan is now chief executive of SuperDimension Inc., a Plymouth-based company that is developing GPS-like technology designed to detect early stages of lung cancer.

Dubbed electromagnetic navigation bronchoscopy, SuperDimension's system allows doctors to probe the deepest regions of the lungs, guided by sensors and 3D mapping software. SuperDimension has raised $75 million in venture capital so far from major investors such as pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, CIBC World Markets and OrbiMed Advisors, the world's largest health care investment firm with more than $6 billion in assets.

Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer in the United States, killing more than 160,000 people this year -- more than breast, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers combined, according to the National Cancer Institute. Despite advances in medical technology, the mortality rate for lung cancer has remained stubbornly high over the past 30 years.

"Nothing has changed," Sullivan said.

That's because lung cancer is difficult to detect in its earliest stages, when it's the easiest to treat. The lung is a complex organ consisting of a maze of bronchial tubes and passageways.

Trying to determine whether a lesion the size of a pencil eraser is cancerous is a very difficult task. In 15 to 30 percent of cases, the disease has already spread outside the lung by the time doctors discover the cancer.

A traditional bronchoscopy (sticking a tube down the nose or mouth) can only go so far, and exploratory surgery might damage the lungs.

"There is no ability to biopsy just a lesion of a lung without a high probability of lung collapse," said Jonathan Silverstein, general partner of New York-based OrbiMed, which owns 30 percent of SuperDimension.

Some doctors are using increasingly powerful scanning technology to help detect lung cancer. The National Cancer Institute, for instance, is conducting a study to determine whether frequent CT scans and chest X-rays can lower mortality rates for patients with the disease.

But even the most powerful CT scan can't replace a biopsy, experts say.

"You need a tissue sample to determine what type of cancer and how it will respond to different treatments," Silverstein said.

Normally, a doctor will conduct several CT scans to see if the lesions are growing and then order a biopsy, said Dr. Lee Schwartzberg, editor-in-chief of OncologyStat, an online portal for cancer professionals.

But electromagnetic navigation bronchoscopy seems to enable doctors to perform biopsies before the lesions grow, said Schwartzberg, a Memphis oncologist, after reading literature about the technology.

"The goal is to make a diagnosis as soon as we detect a lesion," Schwartzberg said. The technology "sounds very interesting."

3D map of the lungs

Working from CT scans, SuperDimension's software creates a 3D map of a patient's lungs to mark suspected legions. After a navigational catheter is inserted into the lungs, a sensor guides the tube to the lesion by comparing its real-time location to the map. The catheter can also rotate 360 degrees for better maneuverability.

Several scientific studies praise the technique.

"Electromagnetic navigation adds an entire new dimension to the field of bronchoscopy," said a Tufts University-New England Medical Center article published last May. "The ability to navigate through the bronchial tree in three dimensions and the locatable guide, which is steerable, allow the bronchoscopist to reach peripheral lesions with great success. This technology has great promise in ... diagnosing peripheral lung lesions with greater accuracy."

Sullivan, who joined SuperDimension last year, is bullish on the market. Congress recently passed resolutions declaring lung cancer to be a public health priority. The resolutions also call for a 50 percent reduction in deaths by 2015. There are 90 million current and former smokers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. Approximately $96 billion is spent every year to treat lung cancer.

SuperDimension estimates that 3.2 million patients today have lesions that could warrant the procedure, which translates into an immediate $4.3 billion market in the United States.

Successes in past

Sullivan has a history of picking winners.

He served as vice president of sales and marketing for SciMed, which made angioplasty tools, before Boston Scientific bought the company for more than $1 billion in 1995. Sullivan retired but reemerged in Minneapolis the following year to cofound Vascular Science, which developed a device that allows surgeons to do coronary bypass surgery without using sutures. St. Jude Medical acquired Vascular Science in 1999 for $95 million.

"Dan is a real competitive guy," said Silverstein of OrbiMed, who lured him to SuperDimension. "If he's not in the fight, then he's not happy."

Sullivan expects SuperDimension sales to jump from $1.5 million this year to "significant double digits" in 2008.

The company, which operates a manufacturing facility in Israel and plans to build another one in Plymouth, already faces a back order of close to $4 million. Silverstein expects the company to be profitable in 2009.

Sullivan wants to move beyond diagnostic biopsies and eventually focus on treatments. He envisions partnering with other medical companies to deliver drugs, chemicals or radiation directly to lesions, reducing the need for wide-scale chemotherapy that destroys healthy cells and sickens patients.

Lung cancer "is the most compelling opportunity I saw since I moved back to Minneapolis in 1996," Sullivan said. "I was staggered by the potential need."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

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