An Ohio State University engineering professor and PhD candidate want to change how medical and research laboratories analyse patient samples. Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor YI Zhao and Graduate Research Assistant Hanyang Huang have invented a smartphone-based, portable pathology slide scanner. In January, the pair received a $225,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I award.
The small business that will utilise the funding is LiveFocus, a company Zhao launched in 2014. Huang will lead the startup company’s project to validate the technology throughout the one-year award period.
The term digital pathology encompasses the acquisition, management and interpretation of pathology information generated from a digitised glass slide. Its use is growing rapidly in human and animal healthcare, as well as life science research.
Similar to conventional optical microscopes, digital pathology has many applications, including primary diagnosis, intraoperative diagnosis, medical student and resident training, clinical research, diagnostic decision support and tumor boards.
Digital pathology whole slide scanners render higher quality images and faster processing than conventional microscopes that only capture a small field-of-view. High-resolution images of slides also can archived and shared among pathologists much more effectively, but the cost is prohibitive for some labs.
“One major barrier to widespread adoption of whole slide imaging is the prohibitive cost of purchasing and maintaining a whole slide scanner,” said Zhao. “This dramatically limits the accessibility of such equipment.”
Zhao’s technology utilises small adaptive elastomer liquid lenses for microscopic imaging with high resolution. The scanner is roughly twice the size of a typical smartphone, much smaller than desktop whole slide scanners on the market and, therefore, much more portable.
Zhao and Huang estimate the price of their device will be up to 80% less expensive than high-end commercial slide scanners, while delivering comparable optical performance.
While there are a few other smartphone slide scanners in the market, Huang said LiveFocus' differentiating innovation is that fluid is the reflective element instead of glass, which requires more materials and a larger device. “By pumping the fluid, its shape changes to magnify the image,” he said. The device can reach optical magnification up to 40 times.
Zhao and Huang estimate they have interviewed 130 pathologists to learn how they use traditional microscopes and digital scanners and discover which product features would make their jobs easier.
The STTR funding will be used to develop an initial functional prototype to share with pathologist users and potential investors. Zhao and Huang have monthly conference calls with an NSF program manager to monitor progress.
In May 2016, Zhao and Huang were chosen to take part in I-Corps@Ohio, which facilitates commercialisation of technology developed within universities. Funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education, I-Corps@Ohio is modeled after a similar program launched by the National Science Foundation in 2012.
Zhao said that he also has received helpful guidance from Ohio State’s Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialisation (TEC) Institute. “Our device will allow more pathologists to access digital pathology,” said Huang. “That means more patients can receive more timely diagnoses and higher quality of care.”