September 21, 2015
Focus: Technology

Precision X-Ray’s high-tech tools aid cancer research

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Precision X-Ray’s X-RAD SmART system has an isocentric design allowing specimens to remain stationary while the imaging and treatment platform rotate a full 360 degrees.
Image | Contributed
Dose visualization technology created by X-RAD SmART Plan software.
Bill McLaughlin, president and part owner, Precision X-Ray

A small North Branford company providing tools for cancer research around the world continues to innovate the X-ray equipment it makes for researchers who test radiation treatments on cells and small animals before they're used on humans.

The high-tech company is Precision X-Ray, which has placed hundreds of pieces of its X-ray equipment around the globe, including in almost every research institute of any significance, according to its president and part owner, Bill McLaughlin.

Buyers typically are radio-biologists, radio-oncologists and cancer researchers, or, as Precision X-Ray calls them, radiation researchers. Their work is important to cancer treatment, with radiation therapy used in about 60 percent of cancer cases in the developed world, McLaughlin noted.

"We focus on research and these researchers and delivering them the tools that help them do their job better," McLaughlin said.

Precision X-Ray's latest tool, introduced this year, is the X-RAD SmART (Small Animal Radiation Therapy) system that provides 3D imaging and 360-degree rotational beam delivery around test animals. That's different than the company's main product, which has a fixed X-ray beam system that doesn't rotate. The X-RAD SmART system combines imaging, planning and treatment with the industry's highest dose rate and imaging resolution in a single piece of equipment.

"X-Rad SmART is an advanced image guided radiation therapy system that allows researchers to capture images and properly treat a specimen without the strain of repositioning it," McLaughlin said. "The system's design allows it rotate 360 degrees around the subject, thus improving the total dose delivery to the targeted area while limiting damage to surrounding structures."

It delivers 225-kilovolt photon beams that are millimeters wide with sub-millimeter accuracy and features devices that control the dose to the tumor.

The system is designed to provide more precise targeting of tumors in research animals.

It has begun shipping globally and "has gotten very hot this year," McLaughlin said.

It's considered the most sophisticated system in the company's line of X-ray equipment. Depending on options, the SmART system can run $600,000 to $800,000, McLaughlin said. The company's products typically range from about $100,000 to $800,000 per unit and the company has tens of millions of revenue per year, he said.

Brian Dermott, who is Precision X-Ray's CEO and primary owner, founded the company in 2003. It has about 20 employees, but collaborates with researchers globally on its equipment designs and uses.

"We leverage a lot of outside resources," McLaughlin said.

Engineering, assembly and testing occur in North Branford, with the company using parts from Connecticut to Europe. After shipping, the company installs the equipment and trains customers on its use and also services it.

The X-RAD SmART system has been used on brain tumors in mice, better targeting the tumors and protecting surrounding tissue. The technology helps researchers better measure treatment variations for such tumors, including dosing variables and timings and chemotherapy combinations.

Mice are commonly used in medical research and because they're about 3,000 times smaller than a human, accurately testing treatments like radiation therapy on brain tumors is challenging and requires precision, McLaughlin said.

The more accurately radiation research can be conducted on a mouse, the better for understanding treatment translation to humans. The idea is to provide the best animal research tools to better determine human cancer treatment approaches.

"These radiation systems are out there with humans, and what wasn't available were these radiation systems for small animals to do really any significant testing that was similar to what was happening with humans," McLaughlin said. "What we've been able to do is really to scale it down and to make it extremely precise."

Pat B. Zanzonico, a physicist and co-director of the Small-Animal Imaging Core Facility in the Zuckerman Research Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, uses a Precision X-Ray system that's about 3 years old and appreciates its capabilities.

"We now can much more reliably recapitulate what's done in clinical radiation therapy. We can deliver a contoured dose of radiation to a tumor while largely avoiding irradiation of normal tissues that may be nearby," Zanzonico said.

The precision of the irradiation — achievable clinically, but which hasn't been achievable in mouse models up to now — yields results that are more reliably translatable to humans, Zanzonico said, acknowledging Precision X-Ray is a leader in its field.

Commenting on Precision X-Ray's growth potential in what is a niche market, McLaughlin said, "It's not huge, it's not clinical, it's not treating humans, so we have our boundaries, but there's still plenty of growth to go after, even in the research market."

The company is examining uses for its equipment in the veterinary market, treating animals rather than just doing research on them, which would require equipment to be larger, he said.

The company also may have opportunities in the clinical market.

"Some of these things that we're working on that potentially could impact the clinic could be extremely exciting, but exactly what strategy the company would take in approaching that, we haven't determined yet," he said.

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