He saw an opportunity.
“Fascinated by the potential of science, I thought, ‘How can I leverage my talents?’” he recalled, thinking he could have “the greatest societal impact and decided to go after it…defeat cancer.”
And from his Ahwatukee biotech company called Visiongate, Nelson feels he is working his way toward a victory.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton saluted Visiongate during his appearance in September at the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce Breakfast, calling it “a homegrown new-generation biotech company that’s saving lives through early cancer detection.”
The city helped Visiongate find 220,000 square feet of space after it had outgrown its location at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Gateway Community College “and was fielding offers to relocate from all around the country,” Stanton said.
“Since then Dr. Alan Nelson and his team have secured their FDA approval on their revolutionary 3D cancer detection technology, and their facility will be the home of 125 high-paying jobs in the next five years,” Stanton said.
Lives, not jobs, are Nelson’s primary concern.
He credits his literature degree with providing a perspective on the world condition “which wasn’t pretty,” making him sensitive to cancer patients’ suffering.
Developing a way to diagnose breast cancer by creating a better approach to mammography was his first mission.
In the mid-1970s, Nelson realized that curing cancer meant early diagnosis. By the time cancer was visually identified, it was too late. So, it had to be found at the microscopic level.
Xerox, the copier company, was experimenting with X-ray imaging in a new medical division and hired Nelson.
He identified calcification from inflammation, which accompanied the cancer cells, as a dangerous symptom.
With a group of 18 scientists, Nelson designed, built and received a patent as lead inventor on a machine that was an early precursor for mobile medical imaging. The machines were brought to Safeway parking lots, where women could receive a mammogram and have it read while they shopped.
Consumer activist Ralph Nader eventually labeled the machines as dangerous, citing the danger of X-rays as a cause of cancer. Xerox withdrew from the medical field.
Nelson, not happy with the “stumble,” said the digitized data created “stunning,” clear, imagery that could diagnose potential cancer.
Xerox heard his request to further his education and was granted funding for a lab and equipment at University of California/Berkeley.
There, he experimented with using ionizing radiation on glioblastomas, tumors. Focusing the radiation so it exploded the center of the blastoma, he was able to deliver an exact beam with a machine the size of a city block.
The technology was effective, but expensive at $10,000 per second to run.
Patients were carefully screened and descended on Berkeley to rid themselves of the cancerous glioblastomas.
At the next stop in his rapidly evolving career, Nelson accepted a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in nuclear engineering, where he taught.
He was also part of the project that developed Magnetic Resonance Imaging, now used everywhere because MRIs provide a more precise series of images, like slices, showing body organs. Diagnosis became easier.
During a sabbatical in the United Kingdom, Nelson researched biomedical radiation, spending time at both Queens University and University of Edinburgh hospital.
A perspective he learned from pathologists was that, “You don’t have cancer until the pathologist tells you so—or, better yet, do not.”
As many as 10,000 cancer cells would not be noticed in the normal diagnoses. If caught early enough, they could be cured.
That realization marked a turning point for his career.
He set up a biomedical imaging program at University of Washington in Seattle with the help of grants and corporations.
Cervical cancer was on his radar and he was determined to make a difference. Through the machines he built, he made a global difference.
China, which lacked diagnosticians, was losing thousands of patients to cervical cancer that was not diagnosed in time. Using mathematical models, he estimated that 80,000 women could be saved with early diagnosis.
Visiting the Chinese National Institute in Beijing, he toured their facility and was proudly shown “the state-of-the-art equipment” he had made.
“It was a dream come true,” he recalled. “All the machinery my company had built, which was the standard of care. It automatically diagnoses cervical cancer.”
Nelson decided to resign from his professorship and work full time to tackle the deadliest cancer that caused 160,000 deaths annually: lung cancer.
“It was a death sentence,” Nelson said, “and smoker-cessation programs did not lessen it. Smoking causes 80 percent of all lung cancers, including second-hand smoke.”
Nelson fought the naysayers, who considered lung cancer the victim’s fault.
“They lacked compassion,” Nelson said “‘Why bother?’ was their attitude.”
They saw it as a death sentence.
After two years of study, Nelson found that nothing was available to catch early onset lung cancer. If caught early, he believed lung cancer was curable.
His students made a point of finding him and have become involved with VisionGate, which developed a screening program to diagnose early lung cancer with a test of sputum, or phlegm from a deep cough.
Called LuCED for Lung Cancer Early Detection, the sputum is analyzed by CELL-CT, the machine that VisionGate developed. It enables doctors to examine the samples and see cancer cells in 3-D.
As part of the process, “A licensed cytologist screens the images and then our pathologist reviews them,” Nelson explained. Once they’re reviewed, physicians obtain the results showing both abnormal or normal cells.
Through a collaboration with the University of Colorado, Nelson is working toward his dream of diagnosing and curing lung cancer.
With a pill University of Colorado developed, VisionGate was provided with exclusive licensing rights. Once the FDA approves the drug, Nelson hopes to allow doctors to prescribe the pill for people with confirmed lung-cancer diagnoses.
Meanwhile, VisionGate’s 17 scientists, researchers and staff continue their research into a lung cancer cure while building the machinery in Seattle.
He expects to make major announcements in December at the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer Conference in Austria.