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Now, with advances in genetic research, the makers of medical imaging equipment are retooling their cameras to spot tiny changes within cells that signal the start of a disease — the point at which doctors have the best shot at a cure.
“Its totally different from the way we take care of patients now,” said Dr. Samuel Wickline, professor of medicine, physical and biomedical engineering at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri. “Molecular imaging will enable you to detect the early stages of disease.”
For patients, it offers the promise of finding diseases like Alzheimers and cancer years before clear symptoms develop. For pharmaceutical companies, it promises to speed drugs to market by letting scientists see whether they work within days, rather than taking weeks or months.
“The promise is to track and detect diseases before they actually manifest as an illness in the patient,” said Dr. Eric Russell, chairman of radiology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
The next horizon
Molecular imaging combines gene and protein-based research with new diagnostic drugs that zero in on diseased cells. The drugs are tagged with radioactive tracers that show up as a bright spot on imaging equipment, creating a microscope that can see into the human body.
Because molecular imaging depends on chemical agents to enhance the pictures taken on imaging cameras, imaging hardware makers like GE Medical Systems, Philips Medical Systems Inc. and Siemens Medical Solutions are rapidly assembling drug research capabilities.
In the last two years, they have formed molecular imaging departments, acquired speciality device makers and forged strategic partnerships with makers of diagnostic and therapeutic drugs.
“All of the imaging companies have figured out that this is the next horizon for their internal research and development efforts,” Wickline said.
At GE Medical, the focus on molecular imaging in the past two years amounts to a “sea change,” said Eric Stahre, general manger of genomics and molecular imaging at the $10 billion unit of General Electric.
Traditionally a hardware maker, GE recently hired its own team of molecular biologists and biochemists to study new chemical targets for finding and tracing disease.
It also is working with London-based Amersham, the worlds largest developer of chemical agents used for imaging, to develop chemical markers that could provide an early diagnosis for Alzheimers disease. And in November, it bought Enhanced Vision Systems, a Canadian company that makes MicroCT imaging systems used in drug research on animals.
“Were going after this and pharmaceutical companies are going after it, and diagnostic pharmaceutical companies such as Amersham are going after this. To be able to speak the same language was very important to us,” Stahre said.
Molecular imaging builds on the rapid adoption of positron emission tomography (PET)