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UW-M engineering dean heads for promising medical business

Milwaukee — As William D. Gregory, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's school of engineering, leaves his post behind, he has more to look forward to than fewer budget headaches.

Gregory, who is stepping down as dean of UW-M's College of Engineering and Applied Science in June, will retain his job as a tenured professor; but more important, he is looking forward to making progress at his other day job as head of biotechnology company NovaScan. The start-up shared the grand prize last year in the governor's Business Plan Contest.

NovaScan has been working with surgeons and pathologists at three different hospitals – St. Mary's in Madison and St. Luke's and Mt. Sinai in Milwaukee – to establish a database on the electrical properties in tissues garnered from patients who have undergone breast cancer surgery. The company used the contest prize money to build a prototype device that works with phantoms, which mimic the electrical properties of the breast tissue.

Gregory said the prototype has been working nicely and that the company now is ready to do some demonstrations for various regional angel investment groups, many of which contacted him after NovaScan's contest victory. Gregory is hoping to capture funding to do a small study at St. Luke's with perhaps 25 healthy volunteers and 25 patients with some retrospective diagnosis to compare with. That process ideally would begin in late summer or early fall and take the better part of next year," he said.

If NovaScan gets the results it is hoping for based on its tissue study, then it would seek a second round of funding for doing a pre-market approval, which would comprise funding probably three independent studies and would require "a couple of years," Gregory said.
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"That would be approximately three years out from today that we would have that done," Gregory said. "Then if everything has worked, we'd then be ready to go to market."

"It's a long process, but a necessary one," he noted. "You're dealing with diagnoses. It's looking good right now. In tissue studies we can identify the cancerous tissue 90 percent of the time. That's compared to mammograms, where [you get] false positives something like 80 percent of the time. We're trying to improve the accuracy of that."

Gregory's son, Chris, co-inventor for one patent that has been issued to the company and one that is pending, is finishing up a Ph.D. at West Virginia University and is optimistic for the prospects of the company's technology, specifically a technique for determining the electrical properties of a certain tissue. Today coming up with a solution to one of his experiments and estimating those properties takes him about 15 minutes; his technique knocks that down to 1 second.

"That's one of the reason I'm excited about this," Chris said. The other reason is that NovaScan's research has the potential to eliminate many of the biopsies that doctors now perform on patients whose mammograms show they're likely to have a cancerous growth.

"About 75 percent of the time, those biopsies come back benign," he said. "If we can have an impact on that number, if we can reduce the number of biopsies that need to be done, I think that for me, that would be a very, very big success."

A lot of that depends on what kind of funding NovaScan is able to secure in the coming months and years. Whatever funding roadblocks the Gregories hit, however, probably will pale in comparison to the ones William had to hurdle the past few years at Milwaukee.

"At one point in time they had built up about a million and a half-dollar deficit in the College of Engineering," William said. "We bailed out of that, but we had to reduce our staff by 22 full-time equivalent positions, and that was really tough. The thing I'm most proud of, the ones that needed another position, except for one person, we were able to find them a position. UW is proactive that way."

One way in which UW, like most universities, is not particularly proactive is the manner in which it distributes revenues. Put plainly, revenue distribution should match expenses, course by course, so that programs that are more expensive to run receive commensurate funding.

"That doesn't normally happen in universities," William said. "I've been rather vocal about trying to find a way to have revenues and expenses track with each other."

One way to go about that is to put surcharges on tuition for students in more expensive programs – differential tuition. UW-M already does that for students in the College of Engineering, the School of Business and other programs. Another tactic could be to create a technology institute, such as William's alma mater, MIT, or Cal Tech. That would eliminate many of the turf battles between humanities and science programs so endemic to universities now.

"The practical facts of life are that it cost a lot more to do some of these other disciplines," William said. "You have to distribute the revenues as you distribute the bills. Right now our system does not do that."

Lincoln Brunner is a WTN contributing editor and can be reached at lincoln@wistechnology.com.

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