UArizona researchers develop AI-driven method for diagnosing lung disease

Ruslan Rafikov and Olga Rafikova

Ruslan Rafikov and Dr. Olga Rafikova, both associate professors of medicine at the College of Medicine – Tucson, have developed a new way to provide earlier diagnosis of lung disease. The technology is the basis for MetFora, a new startup the researchers launched with Tech Launch Arizona.

Kris Hanning/University of Arizona Health Sciences

Researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson have developed a new way to provide earlier diagnosis of lung disease.

The method involves analyzing metabolites, small molecules that are produced through cellular metabolic reactions. When normal cells transform into diseased cells, their metabolic processes change, and thus their metabolites also change.

Many diseases have a unique metabolite "fingerprint." The UArizona-developed technology uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify these fingerprints, potentially identifying diseases earlier than methods currently used.

Ruslan Rafikov and Dr. Olga Rafikova, both associate professors of medicine at the college, developed the technology through research funded by the National Institutes of Health.

"We were originally working to understand what metabolic changes happen in cells in pulmonary vascular diseases," Rafikov said. "We were investigating the different pathways involved, and we found that metabolic changes precede disease manifestation. Each disease has a different metabolite fingerprint, and AI helps us find the differences. We do a robust statistical analysis to develop a cellular circulation metabolic profile, and that profile reflects what is going in the body."

Working with Tech Launch Arizona, the UArizona office that commercializes inventions stemming from university research, the researchers strategized and launched a startup, MetFora, and licensed the technology from the university to advance toward making it available for doctors and patients.

"We're excited to see the MetFora team taking this innovation forward," said Douglas Hockstad, assistant vice president of TLA. "Following through to ensure the products of their research move out of the lab and into the public sphere where they can improve lives is a testament to the UArizona spirit of impact."

To prepare the startup for a successful launch, the team was awarded funding through the TLA Asset Development Program, which advances early-stage inventions and readies them for licensing. The team also completed the local NSF I-Corps Program at TLA, which helps scientists and engineers maximize the impact of their research through customer discovery and basic business modeling. Following that success, MetFora was accepted into and participated in the national NSF I-Corps Program, which builds on the local program and further helps researchers gain insights into entrepreneurship and starting a business.

Martin Fuchs

Martin Fuchs

Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Martin Fuchs, an entrepreneur who has launched two other technology companies, is the CEO of MetFora. He was introduced to the UArizona team through his work as a volunteer at Arizona FORGE, an office that helps foster entrepreneurship across the UArizona campus.

"We need better tools to diagnose disease," Fuchs said. "We can help patients much more effectively if we can diagnose them earlier. That's the key – to give doctors and patients the answers early on."

Fuchs said there are a few other companies working to leverage metabolic information to diagnose disease, but MetFora is unique in its initial focus on lung diseases like pulmonary hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and interstitial lung disease, along with cancer.

"Even though we're focusing on lung disease, we're excited that there's so much opportunity to expand our impact," Fuchs said. "The team's preliminary studies have shown that the technology has the potential for application to a broad spectrum of diseases."

MetFora is one of four medical technology companies that will be pitching at Venture Madness, an event organized by Invest Southwest and held in Phoenix in March. The competition is open to early-stage and emerging companies and offers participants exclusive access to active, accredited angel investors and venture capital firms from around the country, as well as a cash prize.