Some 20 years ago, in the early 1990s, the Hungarian gastroenterologist Belá Molnár had a dream: he wanted to be able to examine his patients' tissue samples three-dimensionally under a microscope and if possible magnify and reduce them with infinite variability. Given that the techniques used in classical microscopy only ever allowed him to analyse a tiny segment, for instance when conducting a biopsy, he began to get seriously interested in making improvements.
Molnár recalls that the developments in which he later became closely involved were initially set in train in 1996 during a congress devoted to automated cytology and histology laboratories. "At that time, even with the latest technical resources, there just wasn't any way of conducting three-dimensional quantitative histological analyses. So I found myself wondering whether it might not make more sense in future to do without a microscope and glass slides altogether."
Molnár's first step in that direction was to convert the specimens into images. For this he developed scanning programs for robot microscopes, and imaging software which he called a "virtual microscope". This made it feasible for the first time to obtain access from anywhere in the world to the same images of samples (or copies of them), opening up entirely new avenues for diagnosis and co-operation. But no sooner was the development work on the software finished than it became apparent that simple robot microscopes were no longer up to the job. High-speed scanners working in the micrometre range and equipped with the fastest possible autofocus would be far more suitable.
In their newly established firm 3DHistech, a spin-off from Semmelweis University in Budapest, Molnár and his team began to develop such devices, which because of their minute dimensions and high resolution had to meet unusually stringent requirements. For example, completely new solutions were found, and filed as patent applications, for automatically feeding samples to the scanner and for automatic focusing. The latter invention earned Molnár and his colleagues the nomination for the 2011 European Inventor Award to be presented in Budapest on 19 May.
Back in the autumn of 2004, the team were already on tenterhooks after filing the patent application for their main innovation, recalls Molnár. "We felt we had achieved something important. Something that had the potential to trigger a paradigm shift in the science of diagnosis. Away from the familiar old microscope to a digital solution where you could sit comfortably at a computer monitor with normal lighting to do your analyses." As it turned out, the team had been justifiably optimistic, as the firm now has a permanent staff of 80 and employs another 20 freelances. Four hundred of their scanning systems are in operation worldwide. And a turnover of EUR 4.5m in 2010 was followed by over EUR 2m in the first quarter of 2011 alone. Belá Molnár is proud of that: "We're among the few who have made it from an idea to a product. And we had the courage to put our ideas into practice, even if as central Europeans we had less financial support compared with the USA and Japan".
Experts reckon the chances are good that a lucrative market will be there in the future. Today, roughly 80% of all medical diagnoses are based on laboratory analyses, and at the same time many countries are having to make cuts in their health services. Faster and more reliable analyses and increased automation of laboratory procedures could help to reduce costs.