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Laser-Based Microscope Delivers Diagnostics Fast and Accurately

When Paul Larson first demonstrated the world’s newest laser-based microscope for tissue diagnostics and cancer research, the observers flipped over the table cloth and peered beneath the desk. Predecessors of its kind were machines that filled small rooms rather than elegantly small microscopes like the one sitting atop Larson’s desk.

Its size, however, should not be a measure of its power. Daylight Solutions Inc. has developed the most advanced laser microscope in the world allowing researchers and pathologists to observe the chemical makeup of tissue — leading to early detection of cancer. Early detection is the primary focus of many cancer researchers due to the correlation between early detection and patient survival.

Introducing Spero

Daylight’s Quantum Cascade Laser microscope has a smooth white design with blue lights, black hardware and a name that brings images of Pixar robots to mind — Spero. Spero’s greatest achievement is the use of chemical imaging to detect changes in tissues caused by disease. This technology existed before, but the instruments were too large and expensive to get into clinics where the equipment is desperately needed.

If cancer is currently suspected in a patient, a pathologist must remove a sample of tissue, and send it off for processing at a laboratory where the tissue is stained and studied. This process can take days, if not weeks, to complete. With the use of Spero, a tissue sample can be reviewed and conclusions drawn within minutes.

Because this technology gathers digital information about tissue samples, the data can also be coordinated to build databases that could then be mined for analytics. The ability to mine data from multiple layers of stored chemical information can lead to new discoveries about cancer.

In fact, the National Institutes of Health found a new subclass of renal cancer by detecting a common gene modification in tissue samples analyzed by Spero.

“[The NIH] was really excited that, without sounding too grandiose, we discovered a new subtype that they weren’t really aware of,” said Daylight’s Business Development Manager Matthew Barre. “And we found it in about five minutes.”

Buzz in Research Community

During the last decade interest in the field of digital pathology has increased enormously, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry journal. This interest has been fuelled by a combination of drivers including the need to reduce the workload of pathologists, to increase diagnostic accuracy, to decrease the time between biopsy and result and the need to reduce the possibility of repeat biopsies.

Larson is the president, COO and co-founder at Daylight Solutions. He talked about the buzz generated in the research community.

“What we’ve done is game changing,” Larson said. “And we’ve seen a lot of interest.”

Larson is working with a pipeline of 50-100 customers who are bringing samples to Spero at the Daylight laboratory, then writing proposals requesting grants that will help pay for the microscope.

Among these potential customers is Peter Gardner, a professor of analytical and biomedical spectroscopy at the University of Manchester. Gardner sent a graduate student from the United Kingdom to spend about two weeks collecting data with Spero at Daylight Solutions.

“They took that data back to the U.K. and compared it to their ‘gold standard’ and found that our results were the same,” Larson said. “The difference is that they took 19 hours over the course of two weeks to come up with the same data we discovered in 7 minutes.”

Spero was released in late March at the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy. Daylight made its first sale of Spero to Rice University in Houston earlier this year for an undisclosed price. Larson said the company is currently helping researchers and universities write proposals for grants to buy Spero.

“It can take 6 to 12 months for these researchers to get their grants,” Larson said.

Nevertheless, the microscope has garnered the attention of peer-reviewed journals, research institutions and universities across the country.

“The Spero system is the first implementation of the new generation of Quantum Cascade Lasers, which Daylight Solutions has extensive expertise in,” said Assistant Professor of Pathology at University of Illinois at Chicago Michael Walsh in a recommendation letter to another scientist. “This system is a huge advance and in my opinion is what truly can take this technology to the next level.”

Heat Seeking Missiles for Cancer

Although Daylight Solutions has developed this new arm for the life science community, the company has many applications for its laser technology. Currently the company operates business regarding scientific instruments, life science instruments and industrial solutions under the entity Daylight Solutions.

The development of military and defense technology is operated under the wholly owned subsidiary Daylight Defense LLC. Daylight Solutions received $31 million in venture capital since 2006, including a $15 million Series C round completed in July 2011 led by Northrop Grumman Corp. with participation by Carlsbad-based Moore Venture Partners.

Earlier this year Daylight Defense received a small business innovation research grant from the U.S. Army to develop next-generation high-power ultraviolet laser capability to support future defense applications. Financial terms were not disclosed.

The army said it is interested in “laser sources in the near-UV (wavelengths) for applications such as light detection and ranging and other applications for helicopter survivability.” The Army is also considering the use of the technology for battlefield awareness, trace detection as well as data storage.

“Because this technology is a platform technology, we can use it in a lot of different ways,” Larson said. “The same laser that can tell you that you have cancer will also protect a helicopter from a heat-seeking missile.”

Larson said the company plans to form an additional subsidiary for the life sciences technology and broaden the range of Daylight’s technological applications.

DAYLIGHT SOLUTIONS INC.

CEO: Timothy Day

Revenue: Not disclosed

No. of local employees: 60

Investors: Northrop Grumman Corp., Moore Venture Partners

Headquarters: Rancho Bernardo

Year founded: 2005

What makes the company innovative: World’s latest laser microscope for analyzing tissue diagnostics and cancer research using chemical imaging

Key factors for success: Patented technology platform that is in demand and applicable across multiple industries

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