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Seeing hope in an eye scan

Goal is to diagnose Alzheimer's

Paul Hartung of Neuroptix with the company's new laser eye-scanning instrument, which will be entering testing trials. (JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF)

ACTON -- In three years or so, adults may be able to ask their physician for a high-technology screening for Alzheimer's disease, thanks to technology developed by Neuroptix Corp. and two Boston medical centers.

Neuroptix, which was founded in Boston in October 2001 and relocated to Acton last month, considers this to be a pioneering technology. It involves a laser eye-scanning device that, when used with eye drops, picks up abnormal proteins in the lens of the eye.

"These are a collection of sticky proteins that cause brain-cell death," explained Dr. Lee Goldstein, a Neuroptix cofounder and currently a scientific adviser to the company.

"Nobody else has this diagnostic technology," said Goldstein, 47, a psychiatrist and director of the Molecular Aging and Development Lab and the Center for Biomedical Metallomics at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Massachusetts General Hospital contributed to the research.

The other Neuroptix cofounder is Dr. Leo Chylack, 66, an ophthalmologist at the Brigham, who is no longer associated with the company.

Until now, neurologists and psychiatrists have used cognitive tests to detect indications of Alzheimer's, characterized by severe memory loss, Neuroptix chief executive Paul Hartung said during an interview on Monday.

PET, or positron emission tomography, scans of the brain, aimed at revealing plaque formations, are now in clinical trials, said Hartung, 48, who is an Acton resident. General Electric and Siemens developed these systems, he said. "We see our technology as complementary," he said.

"Unfortunately, the only definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer's comes after death, when a person's brain is examined," Goldstein said.

That is why getting his company's device "in the hands of all types of doctors as soon as possible for screening adults 45 years of age and older is so critical," said Hartung, who previously was vice president of operations for Winphoria Networks, a mobile communications startup in Tewksbury. He has a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The test using the device takes "only a few minutes, the eye scan just seconds," he said.

Neuroptix is hoping that approval can be obtained from the US Food and Drug Administration this year for the eye scanner, Hartung said, adding that a Cambridge firm, Optikos, with which his firm has a partnership, is developing the next generation of the device.

"The notion is that the scanner could be used initially for general measurements of the lens and later for Alzheimer's disease detection," Hartung said. The estimated price of the device has not been disclosed, he said.

A clinical trials timetable "has not been finalized, but we will target all the Alzheimer's disease centers around the world," he said.

So far, Neuroptix has raised about $2 million in venture funding, he said. Last month, the company received the biggest chunk, or $1.6 million, from Launchpad Venture Group of Boston.

And nearly two months ago, Neuroptix signed a research collaboration agreement with Merck & Co., the large New Jersey-based pharmaceutical firm, Hartung said. "This is a multimillion-dollar agreement covering the next three years."

Hambleton Lord, Launchpad Venture's executive director, said Neuroptix was chosen for funding "because companies like it are needed for diagnostics at a time when major drug companies have therapeutics in the pipeline for Alzheimer's."

Merck is using Neuroptix technology "for drug development in preclinical and clinical trials," Hartung said. Merck's Dr. Mervyn Turner, senior vice president of worldwide licensing and external research, was unavailable for comment.

Meanwhile, Neuroptix is moving ahead with only Hartung and two other managers as full-time employees. They are Evan Sherr, 41, of Ashland, vice president of product management, and Vincent Valvo, 57, of Southborough, vice president of engineering and product development.

The company's biggest challenge, Hartung said, is staying ahead of the pack.

"There's a lot of focus on Alzheimer's disease diagnostics today," he said. "We think we have unique capabilities with the eye lens as a more reliable site" for detecting abnormal proteins "than picking them up through the testing of body fluids or by the much more expensive brain scans."