Navigating the lungs for early detection of cancer

Using GPS-like technology, an Israeli company is navigating the lungs with a deeply penetrating yet minimally invasive early detection system for cancer.

 Navigating the lungs for early detection of cancer


SuperDimension's Electromagnetic Navigation Bronchoscopy can diagnose lung cancer. (Photo courtesy SuperDimension)

By I.C. Mayer

According to the Centers for Disease Control, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths, with 200,000 cases being diagnosed in the US alone each year, and a mortality rate that exceeds that of breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer combined. Yet until recently, the only methods of diagnosing lung cancer were through invasive, often dangerous procedures.

That is, until Israeli company SuperDimension came up with a better idea. The privately owned medical device firm in Tel Aviv has a comprehensive, advanced lung navigation system called Electromagnetic Navigation Bronchoscopy (ENB). It’s a minimally invasive outpatient procedure that can penetrate deep within the bronchial tubes. 

GPS-like technology to enable biopsies

With ENB, a catheter is inserted through the throat and uses GPS-like technology to biopsy lung lesions and lymph nodes. ENB provides a three-dimensional virtual ‘roadmap’ of the lungs that enables a physician to maneuver catheters through multiple branches of the bronchial tree, extending beyond the capabilities of the traditional bronchoscope to distant, previously inaccessible regions of the lungs.

If the targeted lesions are determined to be cancerous, the physician can use ENB to place radiosurgical markers in and around lung tumors to help radiation oncologists treat patients with external beam radiation.

Previously, the only way to effectively diagnose lung cancer was through two invasive operations: Biopsy of the lung – which necessitates opening a patient’s chest – or of the lymph nodes, through lymph node surgery. One other method is to use a needle in the patient’s chest, but this method does not penetrate deep into the bronchial tubes, and in 50 percent of cases leads to lung collapse.

With early diagnosis, lung cancer survival is 90%

Now available in 275 hospitals worldwide, ENB has been used to diagnose over 15,000 patients. The technology was commercialized in 2005, but was more significantly deployed in 2008, and since then has seen strong physician adoption. Prior to 2008, "we were a small start-up company with a brand-new procedure, and we needed to build an experienced management team," recounts Daniel J. Sullivan, company president and CEO.

Sullivan suggests that with ENB technology, early detection of lung cancer is more feasible, since the procedure is so non-invasive.
"Currently, the long-term survival rate for lung cancer is 15%," says Sullivan explaining that "the reason is because most lung cancer is not diagnosed until it’s at stage four, which is usually too late, because people typically don’t want to have invasive surgery for diagnosis.

"On the other hand, if the cancer is diagnosed when it’s a small spot, at stage one, the long term survival is 90%. Our procedure can go to a small spot on the lung by means that are minimally invasive."

$20m. in revenues predicted by late 2010

A privately held medical device company, SuperDimension was founded more than a decade ago in Tel Aviv by inventor Pinhas Gilboa. Today, the company spans Tel Aviv, the US and Germany, and employs more than 100 people.

SuperDimension recently raised $24.8 million in debt and equity financing, which is expected to have a significant impact on manufacturing in the coming year. Sullivan predicts $20 million in revenues by the end of 2010.

The next step for ENB technology is to develop it from a purely diagnostic tool into one that is therapeutic as well. In about five years, Sullivan says, "the catheter will deliver the therapeutic treatment, with access to the very deep lungs."