By Lauren Dubinsky and Gus Iversen
Royal Philips is taking its commitment to digital pathology to new heights with the acquisition of a young and successful Belfast-based startup called PathXL.
As pathology labs are challenged to offer new diagnostic tests for precision medicine while improving throughput and efficiency, Philips believes this acquisition will ultimately help providers make the switch to digital image-based workflows.
Creating a future without glass slides
"Digital pathology can help the pathologist to share, discuss, and coordinate care at — for example — tumor boards," Steve Klink, director of communications and senior press officer at Philips, told HCB News.
It's costly to ship glass slides for a second opinion and the time that's required accounts for 41 percent of delays in cancer diagnosis, according to the National Patient Safety Agency. With a digital pathology workflow, it only takes 60 seconds for a glass slide to be scanned and ready for viewing at 40x magnification.
Philips CEO Frans van Houten has stated the company's digital pathology business has been "doubling every year," according to Reuters
"We're acquiring a company that has deep clinical knowledge and technology to analyze cancerous cells," said Van Houten, adding that the partnership "will widen the capabilities of our pathology business and make it even more attractive for pathologists to adopt."
Although the price of the acquisition has not been disclosed, a Philips spokesman said its digital pathology sales would pass "several tens of millions" of euros in sales this year, including the acquisition, according to that report.
Traditional pathologists are an increasingly rare breed
The need for pathology solutions is growing at a time when capable slide interpreters are dwindling. From 2008 to 2013 there was a 10.4 percent decrease in active physicians in pathology, and 60.7 percent of active physicians in pathology are age 55 and older, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
"In the near future there will be not enough pathologists globally to meet the demand," said Klink. "Digitization of pathology workflow can streamline the diagnostic process, enhance and elevate the sharing of information and help to maximize resources and workload distribution by creating a virtually connected team."
Last year, Philips helped LabPON, the largest pathology laboratory in the Netherlands, become the first in the world to completely transition to digital pathology for its histopathology cases. Philips has also partnered with other institutions including Mount Sinai in New York and Genomic Health in California to enhance their pathology workflows.
Philips' IntelliSite Pathology Solution is an automated digital pathology creation, management and viewing system that's made up of an ultra-fast slide scanner, image management system, and software tools. It received FDA clearance in 2013 for a specific breast cancer test called HER2.
A small company making big waves
Philips believes that PathXL’s expertise and product portfolio in educational tools will help drive the adoption of digital pathology. The company is also confident that PathXL's expertise and product portfolio in image analysis software and its workflow tools for research applications will be a solid base for its future image analysis software for diagnostic applications.
PathXL is based in Northern Ireland and was founded in 2004. It's a small company with about 30 employees and has offices in the U.K. and U.S. and distributors across three continents.
Last year PathXL revealed that it was investing £3.6m to drive international sales of its award-winning tumor detection software TissueMark, creating 32 highly-skilled jobs by 2018. “Our ultimate aim is to become world famous for contributing something really meaningful to the field of digital pathology," said the company's CEO, Des Speed, at that time according to the Irish Times
Path XL has enjoyed its most successful trading year ever in 2015/16, when it revealed a margin growth of 70 percent as a result of being selected by 21 new customers, representing over 6,000 new users of its digital pathology software.
It also reported a large expansion of user licenses across its existing customer base as institutions expand their digital pathology capacity to meet internal demand for imaging and analysis.
Additional investments — and roadblocks — on the road to digital pathology
Philips has also announced a licensing agreement with Visiopharm, a Danish pathology technology company, to offer its breast cancer algorithms through Philips' digital pathology platform. Philips expects that applying advanced computer processing to a digital tumor tissue image will help pathologists achieve a more consistent reading and diagnosis.
“We are committed to empowering pathologists with the best tools to fight cancer,” Russ Granzow, GM of Philips Digital Pathology Solutions, said in a statement accompanying the Visiopharm announcement. “With computational pathology we continue to innovate, with the goal to improve the effectiveness and quality of cancer diagnosis.”
Still, there is work to be done getting digital pathology fully approved by the FDA as a reliable method of interpreting samples. Massachusetts General Hospital will be a testing site for a precision study, which will utilize Philips’ IntelliSite Solution for digital pathology disease detection, to provide evidence of consistency.
For the study, researchers will pit digital pathology and traditional slides "side by side, and have one pathologist read slides from all five and make sure he/she makes the same calls. They do a washout where they don’t do any reads for three to four weeks, so they forget the images, and then do the study again,” Granzow, told HCB News in March