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Tech guru uses images to aid drug research

Image is everything for Kurt Scudder. Not his, but millions digitalized to help biologists understand cell activity and how drugs affect normal cell function.

Scudder, who moved to Spokane two years ago, can take partial claim for nine U.S. and international patents in the field of image informatics. He downplays his contributions, saying the advances in cell research methodology were team efforts led by biologists.

All he did was write software and provide technical support, Scudder says. “I’m like the bass player in the band. You never know he’s there.”

But he was, and has been since 1994, when he received his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Washington. His thesis topic: “Flow Injection Techniques for Quantitative Fluorescence Microscopy of Living Cells.” Whew.

Scudder, 45, received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boise State University in 1983. While there, he worked part time for the Idaho State Forensic Laboratory. He spent another five years there after graduating. Technology and technique were more “Quincy” than “C.S.I.,” but Scudder says he became interested in scientific instrumentation.

His mouthful of thesis and connections made at UW won him a position with BioImage Satellite, a group formed by Novo Nordisk A/S to explore the technology’s potential for drug discovery. Novo Nordisk has been among the world’s leaders in diabetes research and treatment since the 1920s.

The job was in Copenhagen, Denmark. Scudder says he expected to be in Europe a year or two. He was there for a decade, married a Dane and became a co-founder of BioImage A/S when it was spun off by Novo Nordisk in 1999.

MatriCal Inc., the Spokane maker of laboratory supplies and instruments for the biomedical industry, was a BioImage customer. Anxious to return to the U.S., Scudder asked his MatriCal contacts to shop his resume around. In 2004, they shopped him to MatriCal, where he helped develop new applications for the company’s products, made presentations to customers, and provided technical support.

But Scudder says he missed imaging. In March, he hooked up with another European company, Definiens, which was founded by a 1986 Nobel Laureate in physics, Gerd Binnig.

Definiens specializes in the geographic and pharmaceutical applications of image analysis. In drug research, Scudder’s focus, digital cameras scan thousands of cell cross-sections, capturing location, frequency, movement, size and other characteristics of cell bodies.

Scudder says the technology helps identify chemical compounds that might be effective against disease before drug companies even begin the extensive and costly trials that eventually lead to new treatments.

“It’s physically impossible to analyze them by hand,” he says.

Definiens customers include the major pharmaceutical companies clustered on the East Coast and the small and midsized drug development companies scattered around the West, which is Scudder’s territory.

Definiens has five U.S. employees dedicated to bioscience, no two in the same place. Scudder is the technologist half of a team whose sales half lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

With the Internet, cell and Web-based telephone connections and a convenient airport, Scudder says he avoids the overhead of living and working in the Bay Area without sacrificing effectiveness. Thanks to a nine-hour time difference, he can talk before midnight here with German associates just starting their workday, or catch them when he gets up in the morning as they head home for the evening.

“It’s almost like being there,” he says.

But his isolation is also a concern.

Scudder says scientists in midcareer cannot expect to retire doing what they are doing today. If he wants to progress with Definiens, eventually that will probably mean a move. Or he can try to transfer his narrow expertise to a new company, or strike out on his own.

“I’m not sure I can do that,” Scudder says, noting that it is only happenstance he is in Spokane.

He says he has tried to familiarize himself with other scientists in the area, people like Don Lightfoot, a professor at Eastern Washington University and co-founder of GenPrime Inc. The scientific community is small enough, he says, “We’re so few handshakes from each other.”

That’s a good image.