DiMagno's startup earns NSF funding

Stephen DiMagno
Stephen DiMagno

Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals, a Lincoln-based medical imaging products company founded in part by UNL's Stephen DiMagno, has received a $150,000 Small Business Innovative Research award from the National Science Foundation.

The award — designed to stimulate commercial application of NSF-supported research results — allows Ground Fluor to develop and provide imaging agents for positron emission tomography scans. PET is used mainly to study patients with cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

The principal investigator on the grant, Kiel Neumann, recently received a doctorate in chemistry from UNL.

Positron emission tomography is a nuclear medicine imaging technique that uses specialized scanners to provide images using radiotracers whose distribution reflects specific metabolic activity in the body at the time of injection. PET images provide information about the function and metabolism of the body's organs, in contrast to computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging, which show the body's anatomy and structure.

DiMagno found a general way to attach the widely used PET radioactive isotope, fluorine-18, to many different carrier molecules. This isotope acts as a beacon to allow the specific metabolic fate of the compound to be viewed by a PET scanner. Unlike most stable drugs, PET imaging agents tagged with short-lived radioactive isotopes like 18F lose their effectiveness after only a few hours. As a result, these imaging agents need to be produced rapidly and near a hospital or imaging center where they are used.

"Our methodology allows us to create more potent imaging agents more rapidly, reliably and in high yield. These agents were previously unknown or were very difficult to synthesize," DiMagno said. "Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals' technology should boost the availability of existing experimental PET agents and support the more efficient development of new PET imaging agents."

Ground Fluor was founded by DiMagno and Allan Green, a Boston-based physician, scientist and attorney. DiMagno and Green licensed the intellectual property for the fluorine-18 PET agents from NUtech Ventures, the non-profit organization responsible for building partnerships between the university and the private sector.

"Achieving early SBIR funding is a good success indicator for this rapidly growing company," said Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research and economic development. "As a UNL spinoff and startup with strong roots in Nebraska, we are naturally very proud of Ground Fluor."

Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals was formed after receiving an inaugural National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) grant in late 2011. The grant provided the founding team access to national experts on technology startups and additional training in the latest concepts in entrepreneurial management.

Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals will house its research and development facility in Lincoln. The company will also have offices in Cambridge, Mass.