WATERLOO — There’s a bus that travels around the island of Taiwan with technology developed by a local startup that screens 300 people a day for lung cancer.
The mobile screening clinic has an X-ray machine that uses special imaging plates and software to produce high-quality images for a fraction of the cost of CT scans.
It was developed by KA Imaging Incorporated, a medical technology startup co-founded in 2015 by Karim Karim, associate vice president for commercialization and entrepreneurship at the University of Waterloo.
He also teaches electrical and computer engineering, and in 2011 Karim’s lab began working on cheaper alternatives to CT scans. When traditional X-rays detect something suspicious, patients are almost always sent for a CT scan, which produces much better images.
But in rural and remote areas, the wait can last several months and the costs are very high. Many underserved communities do not have access to CT scans and patients may have to travel long distances.
“Imagine the access you could now provide to testing for a variety of people from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds,” Karim said.
“This kind of technology could be a very good screening tool for TB (tuberculosis) as well as in indigenous communities where TB is a major problem,” Karim said.
In fact, in 2011, that’s what he was originally working on — better imaging technology for early detection of TB. Government agencies invested around $5 million in his research which turned out to have several other applications.
A combination of hardware and software innovations developed by KA Imaging produce images nearly as good as CT scans, but cost 20 times less, Karim said.
“It’s a combination of better imaging information and affordability. That’s what drives him,” said Karim, whose startup is located on Parkside Drive in Waterloo.
The technology is called dual spectral energy X-rays, and it is used to detect lung cancer, tuberculosis, ruptures that cause the lungs to collapse, and coronary heart disease. It is also very useful for finding surgical instruments left inside patients after an operation.
“If you use this device as a screening tool, you’ll get information about lung cancer, heart disease, and tuberculosis — all in one go,” Karim said.
In 2017, Grand River Hospital piloted the technology for the first clinical trial, said Carla Girolametto, director of innovation and research at the hospital.
Some cancer patients were recruited for the trial. Doctors already knew they had lung cancers, and patients agreed to an additional series of X-rays using KA Imaging technology. Radiologists were impressed when they compared KA images with traditional x-rays.
“The level of quality we found in the footage was really, really amazing,” Girolametto said. “It was a great partnership.”
The partnership will be expanded and focus on refining the images produced on the portable x-ray units that are transported to patient beds, she said.
“It’s mainly used for patients who can’t be easily transferred to the medical imaging department,” Girolametto said.
When high quality images can be produced using KA technology, patients do not need a scanner. It saves money and frees up time on CT scanners for other patients, she said.
Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center will begin using KA’s technology in the new year.
Raphael Ronan is co-director of INOVAIT, resulting from a federal support program for new technologies in medical imaging. INOVAIT is based in Sunnybrook and is responsible for creating a national image-guided therapy network.
INOVAIT backed KA Imaging because the technology is promising and the startup has a strong team, Ronan said.
“They’re doing a really good job and showing a lot of promise,” Ronan said.
“For me, the value proposition of KA Imaging has always been to provide more information without changing how hospitals and clinicians operate,” Ronan said.
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