Nuclear medical camera puts international focus on NN business

Last year, a Newport News company sold 25 cameras that help doctors better diagnose breast cancer.
Those cameras could be here soon.

NEWPORT NEWS — The first business venture between a national laboratory and an upstart technology company, both in Newport News, soon could spare women across Hampton Roads some of the uncertainty and pain of diagnosing breast cancer.

Riverside Regional Medical Center, which participated in clinical trials, is seriously considering buying the nuclear medical imaging camera, which can detect breast cancer lesions as small as 3 millimeters - about the size of a coarse grain of sand.

Sentara Healthcare has made a verbal commitment to buy the camera, said cancer surgeon Richard Hoefer Jr., director of cancer services at the Sentara CarePlex Hospital in Hampton.

"It proved to be a very sensitive and specific test," said Hoefer, who helped design the camera's first prototype.

As the cameras appear in medical offices, Dilon Technologies - the company that designed, manufactured and marketed them - is gaining international attention.

The lab that conceived them has reaped $500,000 in grant money to pay for other nuclear medical imaging research.

The cameras do not replace mammograms, which are X-ray images of breasts that highlight irregularities.

Rather, images taken by the cameras help doctors determine whether an irregularity spotted in a mammogram is cancerous or harmless without scheduling another appointment for a biopsy - a procedure in which a needle is inserted into the breast and tissue removed for study.

Hoefer initially expects to use the camera on women with a family history of breast cancer and to help craft treatment plans for women diagnosed with breast cancer.

The firm sold 25 cameras in 2005. It has 14 dealers across the United States, Canada and Europe.

"We're in full production," said Nancy Morter, marketing director with Dilon Technologies. "We're getting orders for more and more."

The Newport News company, which was founded in 1996, nearly shut down several years ago - despite successful testing and approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - as venture capital markets collapsed.

Financial contributions from a Virginia investor steered the company back toward production in 2004.

"It's a good benchmark for us," said Florence Kingston, Newport News' economic development director. "It's the type of small-scale development that will build our reputation as a place that's technologically friendly."

Dilon's success stemmed from research that began in the mid-1990s at Jefferson Lab, a physics laboratory operated by the U.S. Department of Energy and formally known as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

In the 1990s, scientist Stan Majewski and his research team had about $30,000 in grant money to study nuclear medical imaging when not doing their primary work - helping visiting scientists peer inside atoms.

Today, Majewski's team has about $500,000 in grants for about 10 nuclear medical imaging projects.

The scientists are seeking better ways to observe the heart, brain and prostate.

The partnership with Dilon helped bring in those dollars.

"Several people in my family have already used the technology," Majewski said. "It's a personal feeling. We believe in it so much."