PhysioSonics, Looking at Blood in the Brain, Aims to Monitor Effects of Drugs

Xconomy Seattle — 

Walk into a hospital with the telltale symptoms of a stroke, and chances are you’ll get something called a transcranial Doppler ultrasound test. This tool uses ultrasound waves to look inside the brain, noninvasively, to see how fast blood is flowing.

What’s important about that? It’s a useful technique to see whether a clot or piece of scar tissue is gumming things up, potentially causing trouble. The same goes for examining people with head injuries from car accidents, or to check if you are recovering well, or not, from brain surgery.

Any standard ultrasound machine can do this procedure, but it takes a skilled ultrasound technician between 5 and 15 minutes to get a single snapshot of data. What if you could make an automated machine that continuously monitors trends of blood flow in the brain for hours at a time? Wouldn’t that cut down on labor costs, and probably give you a more accurate set of data points to analyze how a patient is doing? Would it be easy enough to take readouts before and after surgery, or before and after drugs are given, to see how well treatment really worked?

That’s the concept driving Bellevue, WA-based PhysioSonics. This company is developing the first tool that’s supposed to give that automated, continuous recording of brain blood flow in the hospital. The company made news a year ago when it received a $4 million investment led by Johnson & Johnson Development Corp., and this month it secured some more financing along with a second strategic partnership with a large, unnamed healthcare company, says CEO Brad Harlow. PhysioSonics isn’t saying much yet about how much proof it has amassed behind this concept, but the company is now making the machines, and is preparing to apply for FDA approval to sell them.

“This will make it so you don’t have to hold a transducer to the patient’s head,” Harlow says. “It will significantly lower the cost to the hospital, and significantly increase awareness of the patient’s neurological condition.”

PhysioSonics started in 2000 as a spinout from the University of Washington, founded by Robert Frederickson, Michel Kliot, Pierre Mourad, and Jeffrey Jarvik. Harlow, a former investment banker and lead dealmaker with Bothell, WA-based Data Critical, joined PhysioSonics as CEO in January 2007. The company now has 12 to 15 employees.

The transcranial Doppler ultrasound technique has been around since the 1980s, and is generally effective at spotting blood flow disruptions in the brain. The problem is that the technician’s work is time-consuming, and for hospitals looking to make cuts, time is money.

I wanted to know more about how this might be used, or how it might change the standard of care. Stroke is a pretty obvious use, and since it’s one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., that’s no small application. Traumatic head injuries are another, smaller use. But the convenience of the PhysioSonics tool opens up new ways to use transcranial Doppler, Harlow says.

Since it’s so convenient to hook up a patient to this continuous monitoring machine, it’s possible to get readouts before and after any type of brain surgery, or before or after certain drugs are administered to get a real-time sense of cause and effect.

It’s too early to say with any confidence that this approach will be successful, especially since PhysioSonics isn’t saying anything publicly about the clinical trial data to support this, or the cost of the machine, how the price compares with the existing paradigm, and the competition. When I asked which physicians are supporting the technology, Harlow didn’t name names, but said that many of the company’s angel investors are physicians who have seen the technology at the University of Washington.

The company has other applications in the works that it will be able to talk about in coming months. “It’s a big deal to offer physicians trend data versus what they have now, a single data point,” Harlow says. “This is a platform that we’re going to be able to do other things with in the future.”