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Early warning for arthritis

28 February 2008

Professor Toumi at work with DKI images (left) and conventional x-rays (right)

Conventional X-rays of the knee give doctors a picture of what is happening to the bone but do not show the surface of the joint or the soft tissue surrounding it. Until now X-rays have been of only limited use to doctors in diagnosing patients with knee damage and arthritis. The ‘holy grail’ has been to gain information about the soft tissues without the expense and inconvenience of relying on an MRI.

Now a Cardiff scientist has developed software which enhances an X-ray image to show a knee joint’s cartilage and other non-bony structures. The system is able to detect cartilage damage and early signs of deterioration, thereby revealing the very early stages of degeneration and osteoarthritis.

The system, the "Degenerative Knee Indicator", is the first product to be developed by Demasq, a new spin-out company created from the research. Demasq is the first new spin-out to result from the partnership between the Cardiff Fusion, a subsidiary of Biofusion, the city-listed intellectual property commercialisation company.

The Demasq team is led by Professor Hechmi Toumi. A former French international long jumper, he specialises in biomechanics and developed Demasq’s pioneering imaging software whilst working in the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University. The project was supported in the early stages by the Welsh Assembly Government and also gained investment from the Cardiff Partnership Fund, Cardiff University’s seed corn fund. A medical team directed by Professor John Fairclough, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at University Hospital Wales and Professor of Sports Medicine at University of Wales Institute Cardiff, in collaboration with Professor Tom Best of Ohio State University and Doctor Sleem Fgaier (University of Illinois-Chicago) is now working in association with Demasq on completing the product development.

Professor Toumi said: "This is an exciting venture which promises to alter our perception of the conventional use of X-rays. The soft tissues which have been invisible in the past are exactly the ones where most disease processes occur. The Degenerative Knee Indicator allows clinicians to determine the health or otherwise of these soft tissues."

Professor Fairclough said: "The Demasq imaging technique offers to the medical world a revolutionary method of viewing conventional X-rays which will be of great potential benefit to both the medical practitioners and the providers of the health care. This exciting invention will potentially offer that rare combination of providing new information to clinicians to help patients while potentially reducing the cost to the health service."

Surgeons, radiologists, physiotherapists and GPs will be able to use the Indicator on their desktops to gain detailed information about the knee joint and its surface instantly without than other existing technologies. The knee is the most frequently injured joint in the human body. It accounts for almost a third of all orthopaedic treatments. In addition, osteoarthritis affects over 20 million people and results in 145 million lost working days annually in the US alone. The new technology offers the opportunity of predicting and treating joint pain in thousands of people before any major damage is caused.

David Baynes, Chief Executive Officer of Biofusion said: "We are very excited by the cutting edge advanced medical imaging technology that Demasq has developed. Its first product, which targets the multi-million pound knee pain diagnosis market, has the potential to revolutionise the diagnosis of knee problems for patients and we expect to launch the product in the UK and the US in 2009.

"Demasq is the first new spin-out company to come from Biofusion’s partnership with Cardiff University. We are particularly excited by the speed with which we believe we can launch the first product into the US and UK private sector markets."

Demasq is looking to launch the Indicator in the USA and the UK initially. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process has already begun. In parallel, Demasq is generating a pipeline of additional products for a range of imaging applications.

Biofusion has invested an initial £450,000 in Demasq. The funding will be used to complete product development and the approval process with the FDA and the European Medicines Agency.

Biofusion’s long-term exclusive agreement with Cardiff was signed in January last year. The AIM-listed company has the right to set up spin-out companies arising from all of the University’s research-generated intellectual property. A ring-fenced £8.2M fund has been set up for the creation of new business from Cardiff research.