08 Feb Early-stage firm NeuWave applies microwave power to cancer tumors
Madison, Wis. – NeuWave Medical, a Madison-based medical device company that has landed $4.5 million in venture capital to further develop a microwave probe that destroys tumors, will try to capture a global market conservatively estimated at more than $200 million, according to one of its founding researchers.
Daniel van der Weide, who developed the new microwave technology to ablate, or destroy cancerous tumors along with his University of Wisconsin-Madison colleague Fred T. Lee Jr, said there are a number of potential applications for the device, a minimally invasive microwave probe that is inserted into a patient like a needle to deliver microwaves that destroy tumors.
The potential market for the microwave device includes oncology centers, hospitals, and interventional radiologists. “The whole market non-invasive therapy is growing faster than conventional invasive-therapy market,” van der Weide noted.
Lee, interventional radiologist, and van der Weide, a professor in UW-Madison’s electrical and computer engineering department, already had invested $280,000 of their own money in the device, and they secured a federal grant to build a prototype and conduct animal trials involving pigs.
Initial targets will include tumors of the liver, kidney and lung because more is known about those kinds of tumors and organ systems, van der Weide said.
The idea for the technology was developed when the two professors served on a committee on a PhD defense in the area of ablation of tumors using radio frequency technology. van der Weide was not familiar with tumor ablation, but radio frequency ablation, which is accomplished by running current through patients from grounded pads attached to the legs or other extremities, struck him as primitive.
“I just asked Fred, `why not do this with microwaves instead?’” van der Weide recalled. “To his knowledge, he had never heard of anybody doing it that way.”
As it turned out, there were other people thinking along these lines, but Lee and van der Weide decided to try microwaves anyway. They tried a couple of product designs and quickly came up with something they ultimately chose to patent through WARF, and they decided to start a company in the late 2002, early 2003 time frame.
The federal money is a phase I small business innovation research grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore how different designs would function in a patient-centric environment. “One of the challenges we have, and believe we have provided a unique technological solution to, is how to get useful levels of microwave power through a small introducer – in other words, a small needle,” van der Weide said. “It’s one of the reasons we’re viewed as a potential success story.”
The company has resolved that issue to the satisfaction of investors with a number of innovations on which it is seeking patents. Outside of its initial license from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the founders have maintained an arms-length distance from the university to be able to own the intellectual property they have developed.
“Many of these inventions have to do with how to cool the introducer to a level that won’t harm the patient,” van der Weide said.
The introducer is known by various interchangeable terms, including probe and needle.
The founders believe their microwave technology, which offers larger zones of ablation with a smaller needle, appears to be more efficacious than radio frequency ablation, even though the radio frequency approach is FDA-approved and already established in the commercial marketplace.
“We have solid science to back up claims that the zones of ablation that we get with our microwave approach are far more predictable in their size and shape than radio frequency technology,” van der Weide said. “The bottom line is that patients are better off when the physicians can ensure that the entire tumor and sufficient margin is ablated. That’s not necessarily the case with older technology.”
The smaller needle, he added, means less invasiveness and shorter recovery times.
Beyond solid tumors
Future applications may include any kind of tissue treatment and cardiac ablation where some parts of the heart muscle are literally paralyzed, or certain electrical pathways are disrupted, to restore normal heart rhythm. This means the NeuWave device could become part of a class of devices – including lasers and thermal therapy devices – that seek to selectively damage and kill tissue in order to promote healing.
While it kills tumors, the microwave technology also cauterizes blood vessels to limit undesirable bleeding. That’s why the microwave procedure has so much potential to kill solid tumors on the liver, an organ that is highly vascular. To do conventional surgery on the liver is extremely difficult because of all the blood vessels that run through the organ.
The promise of enabling very low invasive surgeries, which can improve care and save recovery time and cost, is something the medical community has been pursuing for several years. “Having a technique that can not only kill the tumor but also cauterize the vessels around it is of particular importance to a highly vascularized organ like the liver,” van der Weide said. “And clearly with the heart, you don’t want the patient to suffer from a lot of internal bleeding, either.”
Another potential application involves lung cancer in cigarette smokers. Many people have nodules in their lungs because of smoking, and the standard treatment for that is to remove an entire lobe of the lung rather than selective ablation of the actual tumor.
Other more ordinary applications could include skin growth or cosmetic procedures that could benefit from “not using a knife,” van der Weide added.
NeuWave has licensed one patent from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and has another 20 in place or pending. The first patent is on a triaxial antenna, a means of delivering microwave power efficiently through a small introducer, and it’s the basis of many of the techniques the company has been using.
NeuWave also has been seeking patents on other antenna designs that are distinct from the triaxial antenna, and those comprise other pieces of the company’s pending intellectual property. The company also has patents or patents pending in the area of efficient delivery systems – not the antenna, itself, but the connection between the generator that serves as the source of microwave power and the needle. It also has patents pending on cooling antennas and on the entire system level approach to delivering microwave power – the combination of the generator, the needle, and the antenna, which appears at the very end of the needle.
The venture capital will come from Venture Investors and individual investors. In addition to securing venture capital, NeuWave will be led by former GE Healthcare executive Laura King, who serves as its president and chief executive officer. She previously ran GE Healthcare’s interventional division, where she has experience in bringing medical devices to the market.
King was in charge of global mammography for GE Healthcare, and was responsible for the company’s decision to advance digital mammography in the mid 1990s.
She said NeuWave will use the venture capital to take what she called a well-proven device and move it through the FDA’s 510(K) clearance process over the next 18 to 24 months. Once clearance is obtained, King said the company will begin commercial distribution.
While technically an early-stage company, NeuWave has advanced far enough to be right in the middle of the “sweet spot” where Venture Investors typically gets invovled. Scott Button, managing director of Venture Investors, cited van der Weide’s reputation as “one of the brightest engineering professors around,” Lee’s position as a leading physician in ablation, King’s ability to bring product innovations from concept to commerce, and the technology itself.
“There is no silver bullet for curing cancer,” Button said, “but this is one of many tools that physicians will use to treat cancer.”
• Cellectar raises $13 million for pending clinical trial
• Accelerate Wisconsin seeks to improve early-stage, venture capital performance
• Deltanoid secures $12 million in venture capital
• Tom Still: In the rush to punish investor excess, don’t harm innovation
• Wisconsin start-up businesses look to UW-Madison office for resources