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Neurognostics pushes early prediction of brain disease

Milwaukee — Score one for early prediction: Neurognostics, a firm in Milwaukee that develops devices for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), has made strides since its founding two years ago toward the treatment of disorders before any physical signs develop.

"MRI is the most popular and useful mapping technique in the world ... in research," said Steve Rao, founder and chief science officer of Neurognostics. "What we are doing is standardizing the procedure so it can be done in any non-academic environment."

Formed as an offshoot of the Medical College of Wisconsin, Neurognostics makes a set of applications called MindState that are installed directly into the MRI scanner. Patients inside the scanner respond to various tests administered by a physician. These tests light up areas of the brain that correspond to common disorders, such as the temporal lobe for Alzheimer's and motor control regions for Parkinson's disease.

Once the data is received it is transmitted to the physician and compared with a database of patient information to assess whether a disorder is present and how far it has advanced. Tests like this can catch a disorder without physical symptoms.

Douglas Tucker, CEO of Neurognostics, said one of the key goals in developing the system was to make sure that physicians could handle it on their own. "What we have done is try to package all this into turnkey products that clinicians can get up and install," Tucker said.
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Neurognostics also uses its technology to develop "biomarkers" for pharmaceutical companies, scanning patients early and recording the activity in problem regions. After a drug is administered these markers can be used to verify the drug is affecting the problem area.

Neurognostics' first pharmeceutical contract was with Pfizer and Serono to study their drug Aricept, using MRI to analyze how effective it was in treating patients with multiple sclerosis. Tucker said Neurognostics is in the middle of negotiations with two other firms for similar projects.

"We assist the pharmaceutical company in making go or no go solutions, and we can do this by showing it's more sensitive then paper-pencil tests," Rao said.

Neurognostics was founded in April 2003, when Rao – director of the functional imaging research center at the Medical College of Wisconsin – was approached by Dean William Hendee and asked what he was working on, and if it had commercial applications.

Rao said the pro-business attitude toward his research was welcome, and also a surprising change from when functional MRI – a use of MRI to measure brain activiy – was first developed in 1992. "If I had mentioned this [as a business] 10 or 15 years ago, I would have been asked to leave my day job," Rao said.

In his research Rao observed blood flow to different regions of the brain after patients received some sort of stimulus. Rao was applying the technique to evaluate changes in brain chemistry, studying the effect of medications for ADHD and Parkinson's disease.

Rao, persuaded to develop his research further, gave a presentation to TechStar, a Milwaukee investment firm. Intrigued by the concept, the company provided Rao with business advice, helped him licence the data from the college and secure two rounds of angel investments over the next 10 months.

Neurognostics is looking at sites in southeast Wisconsin where they could installing the MindState system in the summer. Rao said that the company would make its decision on where these sites would be in a few weeks, saying they are being "very judicious" about where the system will go.

While the Medical College will remain the company's "alpha site", Tucker said that the company is trying to find new sites that have limited experience with functional MRI so they can learn how it operates in a neutral environment.

"We're hitting the pavement finding implementation sites," Tucker said.

Tucker said the company also plans to build off a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant the company received in October from the National Institutes of Health to develop a computer-aided diagnosis for Parkinson's disease. Neurognostics is finalizing research and plans to have the data analyzed by April, and will submit a Phase II grant request immediately after.

Brian Thompson, managing director at TechStar, said he feels Neurognostics is on the right track with their research into cognitive markers. He said that the programs work well in the market because they are a complement to the scanners rather than a replacement, meaning they are not in direct competition with larger manufacturers such as GE Healthcare.

"Neurognostics brings the knowledge to take these pieces and put them together as a diagnostic tool," Thompson said. "Their results are extremely encouraging."

Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be reached at les@wistechnology.com.

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