Kevin Robinson-Avila: NM startup maps chronic pain with new tech

·6 min read

Jul. 19—Today's devastating opioid epidemic may stem, in part, from the medical industry's lack of comprehensive tools to analyze, diagnose and effectively treat chronic pain, but now, a New Mexico startup may have a breakthrough solution to begin tackling the problem.

PainScan System Inc.'s patent-pending technology could allow doctors and clinical technicians to rapidly create detailed 3D maps of an individual's pain points on an iPad or computer screen using a simple touch exam that measures pain intensity on any part of a patient's body. That could offer physicians a holistic view of a person's symptoms to better diagnose the causes and develop more-effective treatments.

Family medical practitioner Dr. Andru Zeller conceived of the system while working with patients at his private clinic in Las Cruces. And since 2015, he's worked to transform his idea into a functioning, marketable technology that could soon become available to the medical industry.

The concept arose from directly working with people who didn't want opiates to deal with their pain, Zeller said.

"That challenged me to figure out what was going on with their pain and how to help them feel better," Zeller told the Journal. "It became clear that we're missing critical tools to get a clear picture of a person's pain."

MRIs and other exams allow physicians to see things in a patient's body.

"But they're terrible at identifying chronic pain that doesn't have an obvious source," Zeller said. "The PainScan device grew out of that. We need a more sophisticated way to fully map a patient's pain using touch examinations."

Zeller and his team at PainScan are still testing and modifying the system, devising new iterations of the technology based on feedback from physicians to better fit their needs.

But the initial base technology includes a special "clinician glove" embedded with ultra-thin sensors to measure the degree of pressure as an examiner touches or palpates a patient's pain points. That's backed up with cameras to track the palpated location, plus a special software platform developed by the PainScan team to rapidly acquire all data from the cameras and sensors in real time and display it on a 3D avatar of the patient on a computer screen.

The system includes a handheld device that patients will squeeze as the physician touches or palpates pain points. The patient's gripping reactions will indicate the pain felt on a scale on one to 10, all of which is captured by the software platform and incorporated into the 3D image.

"Today's verbal zero-to-10 scale is Paleolithic," Zeller said. "This system provides precision medicine to measure pain, something we don't have today."

The PainScan team is also incorporating artificial intelligence, or machine learning, into the software platform to help guide physical exams by offering suggestions to the physician to expand or repeat certain palpation points based on patient responses. That will help to develop a more comprehensive image of all individual patient reactions and the pain they experience.

The team plans as well to integrate a sensor-embedded waist band into the system to measure a patient's muscle movement during examination, Zeller said. That will help record more of the patient's overall reaction when physicians palpate pain spots, because people tend to tense up, or clench their muscles, when they experience pain.

Overall, the system can offer a detailed "baseline" of an individual's pain to help guide physicians in pinpointing sensitivities, diagnosing causes, and applying appropriate treatments for the particular conditions of patients, rather than simply prescribing painkillers or other generic therapies, Zeller said.

In addition, the baseline can help cut through patient subjectivity. That's important, because people tend to generalize the pain they feel without precise descriptions, and they often downplay the amount of pain felt.

"People tend to underscore their pain, even when their facial expression says otherwise," Zeller said. "With an objective baseline, we can cut through the social, or culturally conditioned mind, and get to a 'base-brain' reaction that all people share."

Likewise, many medical professionals working in primary, urgent and emergency care settings are under-trained in pain analysis, and they're often face time pressures that lead to superficial examinations, Zeller said.

"This system provides a helping hand to guide under-trained clinicians in anatomy and pain analysis to enable them to see what an expert on pain conditions might otherwise see," he said.

And because the system can be used for pre- and post-treatment examinations, physicians and researchers can identify chronic pain trends in patients over time to measure how therapies are working and pursue new courses of action.

"Researchers can use it to study more complicated therapies with solid pre- and post-therapy examinations," Zeller said.

That can help occupational therapists with objective baselines to show improvements through therapy, which, in turn, will help to secure buy-in from insurance companies to keep paying for patient care.

Zeller officially launched his company in 2018, although he's since changed the name from Just Healthcare LLC to PainScan System.

The Arrowhead Center in Las Cruces, which manages all of New Mexico State University's entrepreneurship and technology-transfer programs, has provided critical support for PainScan from the start. NMSU's Federal and State Technology Partnership, or NM FAST, program helped Zeller win a $256,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant this year from the National Science Foundation to continue developing PainScan technology.

The U.S. Small Business Administration provides $125,000 per year to help finance FAST, which the Arrowhead Center launched in 2015 to work with small businesses and startups across the state in preparing applications for SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer grants from federal agencies like NSF. Over the past six years, the FAST program has assisted 240 businesses around New Mexico, leading to a total of $11.6 million in SBIR and STTR awards.

Zeller was a "natural fit" for FAST, said Arrowhead Deputy Director Dana Catron.

"He's one of those people who worked in his profession long enough to identify a critical need and then create something to successfully fill that need," Catron told the Journal. "His technology is sound and he's engaged and excited about what he's doing."

NMSU also helped Zeller obtain $72,000 in financing from the state's Small Business Assistance program, allowing PainScan to receive technical assistance from New Mexico's national labs.

Serial entrepreneur John Mierzwa — CEO of the Albuquerque-based website development company Ingenuity Software — has joined PainScan as CEO and is now helping Zeller seek private investment.

"We're compiling materials to start talking with investors," Mierzwa told the Journal. "We're pretty confident about PainScan's future. It provides a missing piece to the chronic-pain puzzle in medicine."

Zeller himself has invested about $70,000 of his own funds in the company. PainScan recently acquired a facility with laboratory space in Las Cruces. It currently employs eight people.

Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at krobinson-avila@abqjournal.com.

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