The UCI startup is developing a better imaging platform to aid in the diagnosis, management and understanding of skin conditions.
Skin cancer and other skin conditions afflict a large portion of the population. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, skin cancer alone is the most common cancer in the United States, with an estimated one-in-five Americans developing skin cancer in their lifetime.
To diagnose and treat skin cancer and other skin conditions, dermatologists use a number of tools and techniques at their disposal to give their patients the best outcomes possible.
UCI startup InfraDerm is developing a noninvasive imaging platform to monitor the effects of skin therapies, understand the biology that underlies skin diseases and skin conditions, and aid in the diagnosis of skin diseases.
As a world-class interdisciplinary research institute for optics and photonics, the UC Irvine (UCI) Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic (BLIMC) aims to improve lives through moving innovative technologies from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside. The BLIMC’s mission to develop technologies to benefit human health is what first attracted Mihaela Balu, Ph.D., who has been at BLIMC since 2007 and currently serves as an associate researcher and principal investigator.
In her time at BLIMC, Balu has been able to pursue her passion of addressing clinical needs with advanced imaging technologies.
One such project had Balu, along with members of the UCI School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology, evaluating the clinical potential of multiphoton microscopy (MPM) – an advanced imaging technology that uses ultrafast, near-infrared lasers to view beneath the surface of living tissue at the molecular level – for dermatological purposes. While the technology showed promise for the field of dermatology, the current MPM clinical machine had a number of shortcomings that limited its potential.
With that, Balu co-founded InfraDerm in 2017 with Bruce Tromberg, Ph.D., then director of BLIMC and current director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) at the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Christopher Zachary, chair of the Department of Dermatology. The team co-founded InfraDerm to address the shortcomings of the current clinical MPM technology – including size, cost, speed and narrow field of view – and build a better platform optimized for clinical skin imaging.
BUILDING A BETTER PLATFORM
According to InfraDerm CEO Balu, the company’s recently developed imaging platform builds upon the core MPM technology by integrating innovations in its optical and engineering design, which is expected to bring significant positive change in clinical research and in the practice of dermatology.
“Based on our experience from working with dermatologist collaborators and communicating with others around the country, it is clear that dermatologists need better, more efficient tools to diagnose skin conditions, to monitor and understand treatment responses,” said Balu.
With InfraDerm’s noninvasive imaging platform, users will be able to quickly scan a patient’s skin and get a clear understanding of the molecular structure beneath the surface of the skin. This could eliminate the need for biopsies – or tissue removal – to diagnose or manage skin conditions, or even evaluate the efficacy of topical skin medications in a pharmaceutical research & development setting.
Since its inception, InfraDerm has been a part of the Photonic Incubator at BLIMC, where they rent space, and in July 2020, was accepted into UCI Beall Applied Innovation’s Wayfinder program. While in the program, InfraDerm has found business plan guidance from Innovation Advisors and assistance with Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant proposals.
Current efforts toward commercialization and development of the technology are led by Alexander Fast, Ph.D., chief technology officer at InfraDerm. The former postdoctoral researcher at BLIMC and UCI alum became the first full-time employee after they received their first source of funding in September 2020, a $236,000 SBIR award that will go toward building a prototype and an accompanying artificial intelligence-powered software to highlight features of interest to users.
“We’re very lucky this technology is really good,” said Fast. “Looking forward, I’m very confident in it and being confident in your technology allows you to write better proposals.”
While there is a lot of potential for InfraDerm’s platform in a clinical setting, there are more regulatory hurdles as a diagnostic tool than for other applications. Because of this, the startup’s focus is to develop their imaging platform for researchers first.
“There’s a lot of need for noninvasive skin imaging – whatever the application, there isn’t a better tool,” said Fast of InfraDerm’s platform. “And as a research tool for drug developers, we are much closer and would not be subject to the same regulation as a diagnostic tool.”
From there, InfraDerm hopes to one day see their platform become as commonplace as other established medical imaging technologies and used by dermatologists in clinics around the world.
Learn more about the Wayfinder program.
Photos: Julie Kennedy, UCI Beall Applied Innovation
In celebration of Women’s History Month, UCI Beall Applied Innovation is featuring innovative women who continue to pave new roads for their research and startup companies in the “Advice from Brilliant UCI Women” series. In the video below, Mihaela Balu, co-founder of Infraderm, shares some thoughts and advice:
Produced by UCI Beall Applied Innovation
Directed by Julie Kennedy
Filmed by Julie Kennedy & Ryan Mahar
Edited by Elisa Le