Point Breeze Company Moving Chemical Detection Technology into the Operating Room

STORY BY KRIS B. MAMULA • PHOTO BY ANDREW STEIN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

A technology developed by a Point Breeze company is making its way into hospital operating rooms after being used in a number of other ways, from detection of chemical warfare agents to pharmaceutical development to law enforcement.

ChemImage Corp.’s story is one of perseverance against long odds, surprising applications for a disruptive technology, and Pittsburgh’s place in the new age of machine learning and autonomy. The company, which uses artificial intelligence in analyzing chemical fingerprints, was founded in 1994 as a University of Pittsburgh spinoff, at a time when the university was not nearly as supportive of such ventures as it is today.

Since then, the company has operated largely under the radar.

ChemImage has essentially found ways to use light in unusual, but valuable, ways. Among them, identifying explosive residue, detecting contraband drugs in mail, and highlighting critical nerves and tissue during surgery — the latest in an expanding number of uses for the technology.

“How do you get information to the surgeon without overloading them with information,” ChemImage chief technology officer Patrick Treado said. “Our engine is a low-cost crystal light device.”

The sensitivity of the company’s sensors is what distinguishes ChemImage from competitors, chief operating officer John Belechak said. “You’re finding the needle in the haystack.”

In January, for example, Whitley County Sheriff Marcus Gatton demonstrated ChemImage’s mail screener to the Allen County Jail staff in Indiana, a device that can quickly detect fentanyl and other illicit drugs in inmate letters.

The company’s sensors and analytic software are now being tested in distinguishing cancerous from healthy tissue.

Mr. Treado, 55, a former assistant professor of chemistry at Pitt, founded the company. ChemImage does not disclose financials, but the company employs 100 people and has raised more than $100 million from government sources and private investment.

Among the more unusual applications of its technology, ChemImage sensors can distinguish different kinds of pen ink. That type of expertise became a key piece of government evidence in the trial of cooking and home decor maven Martha Stewart.

Stewart was convicted of receiving insider stock trading information in 2001, which allowed her to cash in her stake in ImClone Systems Inc. a few days before the Food and Drug Administration said it would not review a cancer drug developed by the company and sent its stock price down.

ChemImage’s sensors and analytics are similar to the technology used to convict Stewart in 2004, said Antonio Cantu, retired chief research scientist, forensic services division at the U.S. Secret Service, which assisted in the investigation.

A chemical “view” of notes written by Stewart’s broker determined they were not made at the same time, raising suspicions that one note was added later as cover for an unlawful trading tip.

“It has certainly opened the door to many applications in forensic sciences,” Mr. Cantu said.

Although the Secret Service was a ChemImage client at the time, Mr. Cantu couldn’t say whether it was specifically the company’s equipment used in building the case. Stewart was convicted in 2004 on securities-related crimes, and she served five months in prison, the same sentence handed down to her stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic.

Most recently, ChemImage’s chemical imaging technology was used to identify critical anatomic structures and tissue during surgery. Doctors at Allegheny General Hospital, using ChemImage equipment, completed the third successful surgery using the company’s imaging endoscope — a high-tech camera.

Using the endoscope, surgeons could discriminate among lymph nodes, ureters, vessels and nerves, which could have big implications in training surgeons and other aspects of clinical care.

“The platform provides surgeons a full awareness of what is happening inside the body while in surgery, which is a pressing and unmet clinical need,” ChemImage president Jeffrey Cohen said in a prepared statement.

Dr. Cohen, a urologist and president of Triangle Urology Group medical practice, was named president of Allegheny General Hospital in 2016.

*Pictured: ChemImage chief operating officer John Belechak, left, and ChemImage founder and chief technology officer Patrick Treado, stand next to one of ChemImage's imaging machines. *

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About ChemImage Corporation

ChemImage Corporation is a Pittsburgh based company committed to making the world healthier and safer through dramatic advancements in chemical imaging technology. The company combines proprietary, state-of-the-art imaging sensors, algorithms and analytical software to solve the world's most challenging health and safety issues.

ChemImage seeks to provide an Awareness of Things™ (AoT™) to a global audience, using the company's innovation platforms to provide people with unprecedented levels of vision, information and situational knowledge about their surroundings in their everyday lives. To accomplish this goal, the firm develops technologies for chemical and biological applications across many global industries; including life sciences, bio-medical, security, threat detection, anatomic pathology, forensics and diagnostics. 

For more information, contact ChemImage.