GE Healthcare And UPMC Launch Joint Venture To Digitize Pathology Images

Onmyx aims to get pathologists to abandon glass slides and microscopes for the digital technology it says will improve diagnoses.



GE Healthcare and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which a decade or so ago each played separate roles in helping transform the practice of radiology from hard-copy film to digitized images -- are joining up to lend their various technology and clinical expertise in changing the world of pathology.

The two companies are announcing Thursday the launch of Omnyx, a joint venture focused on developing and selling advanced digital imaging systems for pathologists. UPMC and GE Healthcare are each investing $20 million in the new company, which will be headquartered in Pittsburgh, but have development offices in Piscataway, N.J. and Albany, N.Y.

The company is planning to hire 60 employees this year; some staff members will come from GE and UPMC, including several pathologists and technology experts from the medical center. Omnyx is also receiving $180,000 from the state of Pennsylvania to support its creation of at least 40 high-technology jobs over the next three years.

"Both organizations are tech savvy, one with best-in-class clinical experience, and the other with technology expertise globally -- it was a natural marriage," says Dan Drawbaugh, CIO of UPMC, who is one of two UPMC officials who are part of the new four-member executive board that will manage Omnyx. The other two board members are GE executives. Heading up Omnyx is CEO Gene Cartwright, who joined GE Healthcare 2-1/2 years ago after a 25-year career at lab company Abbott Diagnostics.

Pathologists have worked with glass slides and microscopes to examine tissue specimens for more than a century. Getting these medical experts to change a very fundamental part of their work isn't easy, especially if new processes add time to an already busy workflow where critical determinations about people's health are at stake.

At the same time, every year medical researchers uncover new important findings -- from discoveries about the human genome to proteomics -- potentially providing new clues that can help pathologists make better diagnoses.

It's a lot of work. A biopsy of a lymph node from a lung cancer patient, for instance, often has a pathologist looking for "three cells in 60 slides" of tissue slices, says Dr. George Michalopoulos, professor and chairman of the department of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh and pathologist at UPMC.

GE Healthcare and UPMC think there's a lot of potential to assist pathologists in making more accurate and faster diagnoses by digitizing images from the 1.5 billion glass pathology slides that pathologists look at every year in the U.S, says Cartwright. That's as long as the digitization process itself doesn't slow the pathologists down.

For instance, current digital pathology technology requires about 3 to 5 minutes to scan each glass slide's image, says Cartwright.

However, most pathologists only spend on average 30 seconds looking at a specimen on each slide under the microscope. So, using scanning processes that take six to 10 times longer to digitize an image than just looking at the specimen through a microscope doesn't make much sense to pathologists.

"Tissue on a glass slide contains more bits and bytes than a CAT scan," says Michalopoulos, contrasting the complexity and storage needs of pathology images to radiology images, which largely have been digitized at medical centers like UPMC for many years.

Over the last decade or so, GE has played a leading role in medical imaging and radiology systems, including digital mammography systems, of which UPMC's Magee-Womens Hospital was one of the first customers in 2000. UPMC itself also played an early role in digital medical imaging innovations with in-house developments -- including enterprise picture archiving and communication technology that UPMC spun out in the late 1990s to launch Stentor, a vendor of medical imaging systems that in 2005 was sold to Philips for $280 million.

Now, the two organizations are joining up to propel major change in "the next 'ology,'" says Cartwright, transforming the way pathologists work and collaborate.

GE Healthcare says Omnyx developments will reduce the scanning time of each slide to 15 or 30 seconds. And once those images are scanned in, computer software can help tackle other chores that take up bigger chunks of pathologists' time, including calculations about the size of tumors -- and how embedded they are in nearby tissue -- based on images of the thin tissue slivers that appear on the slide.

Also, by digitizing pathology images, glass slides would no longer need to be transported for secondary consultations -- digitized pathology images can be shared electronically, the same way many radiologists today share digital images, such as X-rays, MRIs, and CAT scans.

UMPC already uses some in-house and third-party digital pathology imaging technology to allow UPMC doctors in the United States to collaborate with physicians at a UPMC-partner transplant hospital in Paloma, Italy. The pact with GE Healthcare -- which has global reach with its medical gear -- will also help UPMC expand its international presence, says Cartwright.

Another plus in digitizing pathology images is that today, most glass slides aren't bar-coded, so while rare, incidents of lost or misidentified tissue specimens do occur. Information from digitized pathology images could also be included as part of patients' electronic medical records. Also, the development of sophisticated software to analyze the digital images could assist pathologists in evaluating specimens for key biomarkers that indicate disease, especially as new discoveries are made by researchers.

For instance, by scanning in 500 sections of a prostate cancer biopsy, a computer could "learn" what to look for when analyzing the specimens of other patients, says Michalopoulos.

Omnyx aims to get new digital pathology systems to market within two years, says Cartwright.

The initiative is the first time GE has joined forces with an academic medical center to launch a standalone business. And while UPMC isn't the only U.S. academic medical center that's been developing or working with early digital pathology, UPMC's previous experience in launching and investing in new ventures, like Stentor, was particularly appealing to GE, says Cartwright.

UPMC's culture is one that encourages individuals to be creative and innovative, says Drawbaugh, who was named InformationWeek's chief of the year in 2006. UPMC has a joint investment fund to finance initiatives like this. Other major investments in recent years include a $35 million licensing and equity-investment co-development deal with dbMotion, a provider of Web-based clinical data-sharing and integration software, and a $20 million joint investment agreement with clinical technology provider Cerner.

The target audience for Omnyx's new digital pathology systems includes hospitals as well as lab companies.

"Anytime you have a customer designing your product in any field you're most successful," says Cartwright. For GE, the idea of pairing up to do development with a partner who's also a potential customer is a way to "get organic innovation to market quicker," he says.

The venture with UPMC is a strategy that allows GE to "plant a number of seeds out there and work with expertise in a field" while giving GE an option "to buy it out" if it chooses, says Cartwright. For now, UPMC and GE Healthcare will split profits and losses, Cartwright says.

For UPMC, launching joint ventures or spin-offs from technology that's used or developed in-house is a strategy that makes a lot of business sense, says Drawbaugh. "If we're looking at technology for internal use and there's a gap, it's probably something others in the market need too."

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