06 Aug Wisconsin software start up offers in-depth look at sports injuries
Madison, Wis. – Years from now, when sports medicine, orthopedics, and perhaps even breast cancer treatment has advanced to the point where the extent of soft tissue damage can be precisely measured, the medical community may have a Wisconsin company to thank.
Echometrix, a medical software company that is being spun out of research at the University of Wisconsin Madison, already has a patent to its credit and it has brought Madison biotech executive Barb Israel into the fold.
Isreal, former CEO of Platypus Technologies, has joined UW-Madison professors Ray Vanderby and Hiro Kobayashi, both conducting research into biomedical engineering in the university’s College of Engineering. Vanderby and Kobayashi have developed software for use with standard ultrasound imaging that provides clinicians with enhanced images of damage to soft tissues like tendons and ligaments.
The business, which filed articles of incorporation several weeks ago, initially will focus on sports medicine and orthopedics, but also has the potential to improve the diagnosis of breast cancer by offering a clearer distinction between malignant and healthy tissue.
“That’s a little farther down the road,” said Israel, who acknowledged the founders are still putting in place the infrastructure of the company.
Vanderby said the software arose because the people who do ultrasound imaging and analysis of ultrasound waves are mostly medical physicists, signal processors, and computer programmers who don’t have extensive training in mechanics. “We thought we could approach things from a slightly different direction,” Vanderby said, “and it was a very interesting mechanics problem.”
That problem centered on sound wave propagation in materials. Vanderby and Kobayashi used advanced theory to describe the change that occurs when sound waves travel through different materials, including deformed materials like injured tendons and ligaments. The approach is considered more rigorous than others because they measure propagation as a constant through each different type of material. In contrast, the UW-Madison collaborators look at individual materials to see how wave propagation changes as a function of local deformation.
As a result, more information about the extent of soft-tissue injuries is gained.
“Think of a guitar string or a violin string,” Vanderby explained. “When you pull on it, the shape changes. If you stretch it out, then the diameter is going to get smaller, but then the acoustic characteristics change as well. The pitch changes, and we used this kind of phenomenon.”
The information can be used to identify mechanical material properties, and the mechanical material properties could be of use to distinguish between pathological versus normal tissues and different tissue types. For example, if a clinician found a nodual and wanted to know if it was benign or malignant, he or she might be able to determine that from its mechanical signatures and characteristics, whereas the current protocol may call for a biopsy.
With existing magnetic resonance imaging, clinicians examine water content and try to distinguish one tissue from another based on that water content. If they are looking at X-ray imaging, they use radio opacity to distinguish one tissue from another.
“We’re trying to distinguish one tissue from another by its mechanical characteristics,” Vanderby said. “That is, its stiffness. Think about steel or water or air, and the propagation velocity of sound waves is different in each.”
In the case of a stretched tendon or ligament, one of the things clinicians go though is a “remodeling” process. During that process, the properties of the tissue change from a healthy tissue that is very stiff to a damaged tissue that is very compliant, and then tissue gradually makes more collagen and it heals and becomes stiffer again.
Soft biological tissues are inherently non-linear, which means that if you pull on them, the stiffness changes. The software developed by Vanderby and Kobayashi can identify when the tissue goes through those changes, and provide a better idea to the physician when something is healed or when something was torn.
University colleagues are willing to try it in clinics, especially those who are looking for research products or new ways to better characterize injuries. Already, Dr. Lee Kaplan, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and one of the university’s team physicians, is interested in the technology, and Vanderby is working to get a human-subjects protocol approved by UW-Madison’s internal review committee. A logical place to start would be the university’s athletic department; for athletes who are anxious to come back from an injury and are worried about re-injuring themselves, the question of tissue condition becomes more critical.
The lone competitive concept involves the field of elastography, but Vanderby said the advantage of the Echometrix approach is that it can handle non-linearities better and measure tissue deformation and material properties. He said most of the existing methods get one or the other, but users have to work very hard in post processing to track down other information.
According to Israel, Echometrix is pursuing patents through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation for its method of analyzing wave propagation, and the company is in pursuit of small business innovation research grants and angel capital. The latter would be obtained through certification with the state’s Act 255 tax credit program, and would help transform what is still a tabletop business into one with commercial space.
“Right now, the company is literally on my kitchen table,” Israel said.
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