New device will be able to see into cells as never before

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Business section on Thursday, July 10, 2008)

By Rachel Melcer St. Louis Post-Dispatch

If a new local company succeeds, cancer and drug researchers soon may have a novel, inexpensive and extremely precise method for monitoring cell activity.

This could speed development of treatments and methods for diagnosing cancer as well as open up new areas of basic medical research.

PixelEXX Systems, founded by scientists at Washington University, is developing a prototype imaging device — and a method for manufacturing it — in hopes of reaching the market in 2011.

The St. Louis-based company just received $250,000 in seed funding from BioGenerator, a local organization that helps to create startup companies and commercialize discoveries made at local research institutions.

PixelEXX also is negotiating with companies that could manufacture the special silicon chips needed to enable its device.

“This is a cliché, but I truly think this does have the opportunity to be disruptive technology” capable of changing the way researchers work, said Ken Janoski, chief executive of BioGenerator. “Ideally, it could open up the entire world of cellular biology to closer examination.”

PixelEXX combines the nanotechnology and cancer-research expertise of Dr. Samuel Wickline with a discovery made by physicist Stuart Solin; they are co-founders of the company, along with junior partners Kirk Wallace and Mike Hughes. Solin’s work previously was used to increase the performance of magnetic recording and data-storage devices.

In this case, Solin found that by changing the geometry of tiny semiconductors, it is possible to measure and make real-time images of certain physical phenomena in individual living cells.

And this can be done at a scale of about 30 nanometers, allowing researchers to look at various points on a single cell and produce images at resolutions currently not possible. Nanotechnology is the science of putting to use particles one-billionth of a meter in size — a few thousand times smaller than the dot above this “i” and the approximate size of a single molecule.

With PixelEXX, Scientists hope to develop an array to take simultaneous images of four types of molecular signals that are associated with cellular activity: changes in electrical and magnetic fields produced by cells as well as measurements of how cells react when exposed to light or ultrasound waves.

With these types of images, researchers will be entering “unknown territory” that can be used in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, Solin said. “It’s an open-ended question — what will we discover about disease and the physical properties of cancer that isn’t currently known?”

Scientists will be able to study any type of cell that can be grown in a petri dish. Only in this case the dish will be a small compartment that sits atop the PixelEXX imaging array in a device that looks like a computer memory stick, Wickline said.

And, like those small gizmos that are used to transport data, the PixelEXX device will plug directly into a computer’s USB port. Scientists will use their computers to call up and analyze images.

The device will be cheap — practically disposable — but able to produce pictures that today come from specialized microscopes that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Wickline said.

And PixelEXX developers envision another use for its array: rapid screening for pharmaceutical drugs.

The array could be incorporated into the bottom of disposable cell-culture dishes used by drugmakers. Robotic arms add potential drugs to these cultures and scientists look for nanoscale changes that indicate either a positive or negative effect. With the PixelEXX array, they could more quickly identify treatments, and rule out candidates that cause cell death or damage.

In another setting, the array could be used in patients. PixelEXX developers envision adding it to the tiny probes that physicians insert into patients to obtain precise images for diagnosing cancer, for example, or for checking the effects of a treatment.

PixelEXX’s owners have proved that its concept can work. With the BioGenerator funding, it will tackle engineering devices that can be mass produced. The company also must show that it can combine the four types of cellular measurements into a single device, Wickline said.

“There are lots of possibilities, if everything works,” he said. “That’s what a company’s supposed to do — they take risks…”…. But we think the physics are pretty straightforward.

“And it comes about because the geometries of these particular sensors allow them to be … orders of magnitude more sensitive” than anything available today, Wickline said. | 314-340-8394

Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.