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Lab technology

GE partnership seeks to advance digital microscopy

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and General Electric Co.’s Healthcare division are each putting $20 million into a partnership to bring pathology, the study of diseases and their causes, into the 21st century.

The new company, Omnyx LLC, will be based in Pittsburgh and is projected to employ at least 40 people within three years. The state of Pennsylvania is providing $180,000 to help with job creation.

The first product to be developed will be a “virtual microscope” that would allow clinicians to analyze slides from computer monitors, interpret results and share information instantly with experts anywhere in the world.

Once the digital pathology equipment is commercialized, expected within two years, UPMC wants to capture 25 percent of what’s estimated to be a $2 billion worldwide market. The medical center will be Omnyx’s first customer.

(On a related note, Toronto’s Michener Institute, a healthcare technology education and training centre, is devising a digital microscopy solution that acquires high-resolution images from slides and stores the images in a repository. The images can be shared among clinicians and incorporated in a patient’s electronic health record. The Michener is building the application in partnership with Unis Lumin, Cisco, Aperio and IMPAC/Elekta. For more information, see:

Meanwhile, GE and the University of Pittsburgh hope their solution, including hardware and software, will transform one of healthcare’s last manually performed, slow diagnostic procedures that relies on microscopes and glass slides to diagnose diseases. It could result in a more efficient procedure and higher quality results.

“Digital pathology has been coming for the last 15 to 20 years,” said Jared Schwartz, pathology and laboratory medicine director at Presbyterian Healthcare in Charlotte, and president of the College of American Pathologists. “Once you can digitize an image, you can move it, transport it – things you can’t do now with a microscope and slides. It’s bringing the microscope into the 21st century.”

Omnyx’s goal is to perform a scan every 30 to 40 seconds.

“UPMC has been very interested in digital pathology, looking for solutions for processing and viewing pathology slides,” said Charles Bogosta, president of UPMC’s International and Commercial Services Division. “We first had discussions with General Electric probably 1-1/2 or 2 years ago, after we discovered they were looking at the same thing.”

GE and UPMC have appointed the former president of GE Healthcare’s molecular diagnostics business, Gene Cartwright, as Omnyx’s chief executive. Omnyx is the first stand-alone company in GE’s history to be formed with an academic medical center such as UPMC. “We basically are targeting medium-size, 150 beds and more, to the top-end hospital market worldwide,” Cartwright said. “The smaller, independent hospital isn’t where the money is.”

“The challenge from the pathology point of view was how to scan and store the information,” said George K. Michalopoulos, professor and chairman of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh and a UPMC pathologist. “With the digital revolution, you’re able to use the computer monitor like a microscope and convert the glass slide to a digital file,” he said. “We’re excited because when digitized, the information can become part of the hospital work flow.”

Bogosta said UPMC and GE are discussing as many as eight other ideas Omnyx could tackle.

Omnyx won’t be the first company to bring digital pathology to the medical community. Aperio Technologies, a small company founded nine years ago and headquartered about 35 miles north of San Diego, states on its Web site that it has installed more than 375 digital systems in 25 countries, including more than two-thirds of the top-15 rated U.S. hospitals, leading academic medical centers and reference laboratories, and two-thirds of the top 15 pharmaceutical companies.

“Aperio is a nice little company, and it’s the current market leader,” Cartwright said. “But GE is a software company, and Aperio just can’t keep up with the high scan through-put customers need.”

Bogosta said the deal with GE is an example of UPMC’s effort to develop joint ventures and make direct investments in companies focused on developing and marketing new technologies.

The medical center, for example, has formed relationships with IBM, Alcatel-Lucent and Cerner. In a joint venture with software maker CombineNet, it formed CombineMed, which deals with how hospitals’ healthcare supplies are purchased.