Clemson University research spurs spinoff medical technology company

Doctoral student Donald Medlin (left) and professor Endre Takacs are founding members of Medical Beam Laboratories.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

CLEMSON, South Carolina — Research conducted at Clemson University’s Atomic and Medical Physics lab has led to the creation of a promising medical technology company whose mission is to drastically improve radiosurgery outcomes and costs.

The newly formed Medical Beam Laboratories LLC aims to make its innovative radioisotope surgery device available to veterinarians by the end of 2018 and plans to have a machine customized for people available to hospitals by 2020.

“Our device has the potential to revolutionize how radiation therapy is delivered,” said Medical Beam Laboratories CEO Donald Medlin, a physics and astronomy doctoral student in the College of Science. Additional founding members of Medical Beam Laboratories are Endre Takacs, a Clemson University professor of physics and astronomy; Leon Zheng, a research associate; and Mark Leising, interim dean of the College of Science.

The new devices will be sold under the brand name Beam Lab. The company opened earlier this year in Greenville Tech’s business incubator located in the Center for Manufacturing Innovation. It employs one full-time engineer and two paid interns.

Unlike traditional surgical techniques that require a physician’s blade, radiosurgery does not require cutting of patients. Treatment begins from outside a patient’s body, where one or more precisely aimed beams of ionizing radiation, X-rays or gamma rays travel through healthy tissues. The concentrated beams are programmed to intersect at the location of cancerous tumors and other tissue malformations, where they selectively damage tumorous cells and kill them.

Medical Beam Laboratories, in conjunction with Clemson’s Atomic and Medical Physics lab, is problem-solving some of the major limitations of modern radiation therapies. For example, many radiation therapies use broad energy sources administered in high doses over multiple patient visits. But the new device has narrow energy sources and a precise delivery system that will reduce the number of treatment applications necessary and also reduce the treatment cost. The increased precision will potentially allow treatment modalities beyond cancerous tumors to other malformations, such as trigeminal neuralgia, a painful neurological condition.

Today’s radiosurgery devices produce concentrated energy delivery from three different sources: radioisotopes, linear accelerators and proton accelerators. Radioisotope devices are generally limited by their extremely heavy shielding apparatus, which can weigh up to 40,000 pounds. Patients are typically inserted inside these devices. They traditionally are restricted to targeting cancers in the head and neck.

“Although it uses the same type of radioisotope source, our device has a fundamentally different geometry that allows it to move around the patient,” Medlin said. “It is so light that it can travel around a patient’s body on a robotic arm to target the lungs or even a leg.”

The new device also relocates the shielding device inside the treatment head where the radiation source is located.

While there are existing linear accelerator devices on the market that are lighter and can travel around a patient’s body, their beams are defined differently, resulting in a wider “knife edge.” This term describes the border between higher radiation concentrations meant to target tumors and the lower radiation concentrations designed to travel through healthy tissue. A wider knife-edge means that these devices can’t be used near critical areas such as the spinal cord because the chance of harming healthy tissue is greater.

Medlin said his company’s device solves this problem by retaining the freedom to move around a patient but having a much sharper knife edge due to more tightly defined radiation sources. The new device also contains an image guidance system that moves the patient table up or down in response to breathing or slight movement, a maneuver that keeps a tumor tightly within the beam’s fixed path.

While proton-based therapies are considered the gold-standard for precisely delivered radiation therapy, these machines are extremely expensive. They cost around $200 million to build and require as much as two to three acres of space to get the protons up to high speeds. While there are several of these massive devices used worldwide, the cost and size limitations place this therapy well beyond a regional hospital’s budget.

“The device we are working on will be about 100 times less costly than what a proton therapy device would be,” Medlin said.

Medical Beam Laboratories is also developing treatment management software to aid healthcare providers in using the new machine.

Clemson University holds the patent for the treatment head, which houses the radiation source and emits the treatment beam, and will license its use for commercialization to Medical Beam Laboratories. The company will then hold patents for all other components of the new radiosurgery device.

While radiation therapies have long been designed for people, veterinarians have relied on refurbished machines meant for humans for animals. Medlin said that his company’s product will be the first radiosurgery device dedicated for animals. In the United States, cats and dogs experience more than 100 million cases of cancer annually, yet the U.S. has only 10 radiosurgery devices specifically adapted for animals.

The idea for a spinoff medical technology company originated several years ago when Medlin and his adviser, Endre Takacs, were working in Clemson’s Atomic and Medical Physics lab on an experiment with bioengineers to systematically study the effects of low-dose radiation on living cell cultures. Medlin and Takacs, who had previously worked with radiosurgery devices, decided to look into the successes and limitations of devices in use today.

Takacs and Zheng, then a newly hired research associate, shared with Medlin a conceptual design for a new machine that had originated from a previous collaboration. After using a computer model – which Leising had previously used in astrophysics – to simulate the design, the researchers decided to commercialize the technology.

“Our device will provide radiosurgeons with a new tool to access hard-to-reach areas,” Takacs said. “We’re combining the multiple pencil beams of isotope-based devices with the precision robotic control of linear accelerators. This unique combination is currently unavailable on the market and will increase treatment effectiveness as well as patient comfort.”

Medlin credits the South Carolina Research Authority for granting $25,000 in seed money to help jump-start the project.

Medlin’s slightly unconventional path to a Ph.D, which has segued into the entrepreneurial community, might be due in part to family ties. His father also created a company while Medlin was still a teen, and he credits his dad with teaching him the ropes of how a company should work and be managed.

“Today, I’m motivated by looking at how I can take what I’m working on in science and make it applicable to the real world,” Medlin said. “Ultimately, I want to save as many lives as we can with this machine.”