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Cutting-edge science leads to cut-free biopsies

November 30, 2017
hand held under a portable optical scannerThis portable device was designed by University spin-off LighTopTech, cofounded by two women engineers and one of 10 startups to advance in a competition sponsored by a New York accelerator focused on optical technologies. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Despite advances in microsurgery, it can still be difficult to tell if a skin cancer has been entirely removed without a follow up biopsy, which could require a patient to come back for a second operation.

But what if the biopsy could be performed noninvasively as part of the initial procedure, so the surgeon would know immediately whether additional cancerous tissue needed to be removed?

A novel optical device to do just that moved a step closer to commercialization recently. LighTopTech, a University of Rochester spinoff, was one of 10 startups to advance to the next phase of a competition sponsored by the accelerator Luminate.

The company received an investment of $100,000 from the accelerator. It will now compete with the nine other finalists for the top prize: A $1 million additional investment, to be announced in June. The accelerator, based in Rochester and funded by New York State, is focused on advancing next generation optics, photonics, and imaging companies.

“This is our first outside investment,” says company president Cristina Canavesi. She co-founded LighTopTech in 2013 with her PhD advisor, Jannick Rolland, the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering at the University. Rolland is the company’s chief technology officer.

“During the past four years we’ve completely re-engineered the prototype, and we recently completed all of the hardware development of our product, so we are now ready to launch the commercialization effort, especially targeting medical applications,” Canavesi says.

An ‘optical biopsy’

Rolland first conceived of the idea for the device 11 years ago after experiencing a biopsy and learning about the risks involved. About the same time, a technique called optical coherence tomography was coming into wide use to obtain images inside tissues.

“For me, it really connected the dots,” Rolland says. “If we could do an optical biopsy noninvasively it would eliminate the risks. The (OCT) images were kind of low resolution and noisy, so my first goal was to produce images of a higher definition.”

The portable device she and Canavesi have developed can render high-resolution images of cells just below the surface of living tissues such as skin or the cornea.

“We can provide the same kind of images at the cellular level as histology (biopsied cells stained and viewed through a microscope). But there’s no cutting and it’s done right at the time of the surgery,” Canavesi says.

At the heart of the technology is a biomimetic (bioinspired) microscope with a liquid lens. It can refocus at different depths inside a sample to obtain high-definition, three-dimensional images of materials.

The technology has proven its effectiveness in two clinical trials at the University’s Medical Center. For example, the device was used by Sherrif Ibrahim, an assistant professor of dermatology, to determine the margins of skin cancer prior to surgical removal.

“We were impressed with its ability to differentiate between skin cancer and normal skin,” says Ibrahim. “This may aid us in more accurate and efficient surgical treatment of skin cancer, particularly those in cosmetically sensitive areas such as the face.”

The device could be used for several other medical applications—for example, imaging the cornea of the eye to detect and monitor nerve loss that results from diabetes, Rolland noted.

It could also be used to obtain images beneath the surface of fabricated materials, to monitor the quality of the manufacturing process, thus improving quality and yield.

An unexpected journey

Canavesi and Rolland say they never expected to embark on this journey.

“We had no plan originally to be entrepreneurs,” Rolland says. “My only plan has been to get the technology we have been developing out into the world.”

two scientists, Cristina Canavesi and Jannick Rolland, pose for portrait

LighTopTech cofounders Cristina Canavesi, right, former Phd student at the University of Rochester and her mentor, Jannick Rolland, professor of optics and the director of the Center for Freeform Optics. “To have two women scientists as cofounders of a company is unusual,” Rolland says. “It’s a fantastic example for other women to realize their potential as well.” (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Says Canavesi: “We had this technology in the lab that we were really excited about, but our thinking was ‘we’re scientists; we don’t want to start a company.’”

Initially, they tried licensing the technology to companies. However, advanced discussions with two companies eventually proved fruitless.

“By that point, we felt the technology was ready to go, so we said ‘Let’s do it,’” Canavesi says.

Also by that point, Canavesi had participated in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, which teaches university faculty to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research. It also offers entrepreneurship training.

She had also completed the Master of Science in Technical Entrepreneurship and Management program, offered jointly by the Simon Business School and the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“Cristina had developed some real interest in entrepreneurship,” Rolland says. “The timing was perfect.”

‘A huge learning experience’

Originally, Rolland was able to demonstrate the capability of the approach in a full prototype with funding from the NYSTAR Foundation. She received the funding as a career award when she joined the University of Rochester in 2009.

Subsequently, more than $1 million in NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding enabled her and Canavesi to accelerate the development of their technology and address all the engineering aspects of the system.

They also have benefited from their participation in High Tech Rochester, a University-affiliated, nonprofit business incubator.

LighTopTech has been housed with other startups at HTR’s Lennox TEC facility, which offers workshops, advice on fundraising, regular meetings with entrepreneurs in residence, and access to a first prototype lab.

“It’s a great space because the HTR staff is available for mentoring and making connections that have been really helpful for us, especially because we haven’t run a business before,” Canavesi says. “Everything has been a huge learning experience.”

Canavesi and Rolland also have benefited from the close proximity of the University’s Medical Center to the Institute of Optics, just a five-minute walk away on the River Campus. Being able to collaborate on clinical trials, for example, “has been tremendously helpful for accelerating the application of our product,” Canavesi says.

A good team

But above all, Canavesi and Rolland have benefited from each other’s strengths.

Canavesi praises Rolland’s energy and cutting-edge vision as a researcher.

“I was very fortunate in joining Professor Rolland’s group. Through this journey I’ve been constantly inspired by her as a scientist and also as a woman in science promoting women engineers,” Canavesi says.

Rolland praises Canavesi as a quick learner who is adept with both hardware and software, and “extremely rigorous.”

“She can think of a process and really manage that process very well to ensure we have very high quality.”

Adds Rolland: “We are very different, but we have a deep respect for each other.”

At the LighTopTech website, they proudly identify their company as “woman-owned.” That in itself is noteworthy given the continuing underrepresentation of women in engineering and technical fields.

“To have two women scientists as cofounders of a company is unusual,” Rolland says. “It’s a fantastic example for other women to realize their potential as well.”

 

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