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New Advances

New Lens May Detect Breast Cancer, Sans Scalpel

By Akweli Parker, Virginian-Pilot
Aug 27 1997

Williamsburg-based Dilon Technologies Inc., the University of Virginia and Jefferson Laboratory in Newport News are honing a weapon that could save thousands of lives and millions of dollars annually in the battle against breast cancer.

The collaboration was made possible through the Technology Award$ program at Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology, and marks the first time that a Virginia company, a state university and a federal lab have joined forces through the nearly 17-year-old program.

The weapon, a "scintimamography" imaging system, is far more powerful in detecting tumors than conventional X-ray machines, say developers. The technology has been around for years, but hasn't seen widespread use because older nuclear medicine procedures have been used as "general purpose" detectors for a variety of cancers. Scintimammography is optimized for detecting breast cancer.

"What we're doing is making an application-specific product," said Lon Slane, president of Dilon Technologies.

He did not disclose the size of the CIT award, but they can range up to $75,000.

The American Cancer Society estimates that this year 180,200 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed among U.S. women and 1,400 cases in men. The disease is expected to kill about 44,000 this year.

Imaging systems on the market are large, imposing contraptions with lenses that average 2 feet in diameter. That bulkiness makes them less effective in finding tumors because patients can't physically get very close to the lens, said Slane.

Dilon's system, which it has licensed from the Department of Energy's Jefferson laboratory, has a lens 5 inches in diameter. Its smaller size allows it greater proximity to the patient.

Proponents say scintimammography could save patients or their health care providers a lot of money on biopsies. With the most commonly practiced X-ray mammography today, needle or surgical biopsies are typically required to determine if a tumor in cancerous. Biopsies are considered invasive, scarring and expensive, and can cost as much as $3,000.

But because of its greater sensitivity, scintimamography can determine the nature of a tumor without a scalpel.

How It Works

A company partners with an Intellectual resource, such as a state school or federal lab, via CIT and forms a proposal. CIT will share the cost of product development, pending approval of the company's proposal.

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"There are 800,000 biopsies performed in the United States each year. Out of the 800,000, there were 200,000 that were actually cancerous," said Slane. "The U.S. health care industry wastes between $600 million and $2 billion a year" on biopsies that revealed benign tumors, Slane said.

Dilon, a start-up company, has enlisted some of the world's top breast cancer authorities, including U.Va's Mark B. Williams, and Jefferson Lab's Dr. Stan Majewski. Chief scientist and manager of Jefferson Lab's detector group, Majewski has studied under two Nobel prize winners in physics.

U.Va. will put the device through clinical trials and give Dilon insight as to how it can be improved.

Dilon plans to move to Newport News later this year to be closer to the Jefferson Lab. Within 18 months, Slane said, his company plans to have a commercial scintimammography machine ready for use in hospitals.

And bringing high-tech products to market is what it's all about with the Technology Award$ program, said Karen Jackson, Peninsula regional director for CIT.

She helped coordinate the partnership between Dilon, U. Va. and Jefferson Lab.

"In Dilon's case, they had the technology, but they need the university to do the final testing," Jackson said.

Applying for one of the Technology Award$ is difficult, but turn-around is just over a month between the time CIT's approval committee meets and a check is mailed to the selected "intellectual resource" that's helping with the project. The company that receives the award then has to match that amount from its own purse.

"From there," Jackson said, "it's about a year before you go commercial."

"Jobs, companies and competitiveness - that's what we're hoping to feed, economic development," Jackson said.