Breast Cancer’s Hidden Side Effect: ImpediMed Aims to Spot Slow-Emerging Lymph Disorder

1/9/09Follow @xconomy

One of the ugly side effects of breast cancer treatment is lymphedema. This condition can happen when surgeons cut out a tumor in the breast, then move on to the nearby lymph node in the armpit which is the first place tumors usually spread. If the surgeon carves out too much healthy tissue, then it’s harder for the lymphatic system to do its job of ferrying fluids that clear the body of bacteria, viruses and the like. Arms or legs balloon with unsightly fluid retention, requiring patients to wear compression bandages.

ImpediMed, a company with technology from Australia and a primary U.S. office in San Diego, is trying to push a new way of diagnosing lymphedema early, before patients throw out their short-sleeve shirts forever. I heard the pitch for this system, called “bioimpedence spectroscopy” from Steve Smith, the company’s vice president for corporate development in San Diego. The company has about 25 employees, with about 20 in San Diego.

ImpediMed is up against a lot of barriers in trying to make this thing sell. For starters, this condition can take several years to show up after the surgery. So some surgeons are in denial about it being a complication of their work, making them unlikely to bother testing for it, Smith says. There already is a cheap—albeit not very accurate—way to diagnose lympedema (a tape measure wrapped around the arm.) Then there are other sophisticated, and expensive, ways to look inside the human body for this kind of fluid flow-MRI machines, CT scans, ultrasound, for example.

Despite some interest from high-profile patient advocates like the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, I get the sense that public awareness of the need to test for lymphedema in breast cancer patients is pretty low. Then again, the opportunity would be a big one if doctors could be persuaded this is a necessary screening test for everyone after surgery. About 240,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. Of the 2 million breast cancer survivors in the country, about one in five are currently living with the condition, according to researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“We are able to detect this condition at its infancy, when it’s still easy to treat with a compression bandage,” Smith says. If you wait too long until you can see your arm is swelling up “you have an irreversible condition,” he says.

ImpediMed’s alternative is the only commercially available machine of its kind … Next Page »

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