It’s a big, weird-looking machine that could play a role in a science-fiction movie. It sits in a large room in a doughnut arrangement of shiny metal boxes and cylinders connected by tangles of electric wires. A computer buzzes atop a table in the corner, its monitor alive with shooting lines of data.

Toxicologist Paul Henderson walks slowly around the accelerator mass spectrometer as he proudly explains the intricacies of how it works and what secrets it might reveal.

Henderson was a biomedical scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) seven years ago when he used the spectrometer to search for needles in a haystack – minute levels of a radiolabeled drug substance in human tissue. The spectrometer, AMS for short, allows detection of just a single radioactive atom amongst a trillion other atoms, revealing, for example, if a suspected terrorist had ever handled materials used in making nuclear weapons.

“I learned how to use AMS while searching for something that happens only rarely,” says Henderson, a chemist by training. “Now I am applying it for something that affects about half of people who live long enough – cancer.”

Henderson’s desire to use the technology in innovative ways led him to join a collaboration between Lawrence Livermore and UC Davis to explore the possible medical uses of AMS. Later, with the encouragement of Ralph deVere White, director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, he moved to the UC Davis School of Medicine Department of Internal Medicine.

Henderson realized that AMS might be of great benefit to screen drugs used in cancer treatment. Many chemotherapy drugs are unpredictable in how well they will work – one patient might be cured, while another with the same cancer might receive no benefit. At the same time, the drugs almost always cause serious side effects.

What if one could deliver just a micro-dose to a patient – not enough to have bad effects, but enough, with the help of AMS’s super-detection capabilities, to determine if the cancer cells respond? Then physicians could better predict whether it is likely to be worthwhile for a patient to undergo treatment.

But the multi-million dollar and highly technical AMS machine is out of reach of most cancer centers and hospitals that could benefit from its secrets. Henderson had been toying with the idea of combining university scholarship with private industry since his post-doctoral days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There Robert Langer, a research engineer and inventor who turned increasingly to founding private companies to attract money to further his research, inspired Henderson. Langer now leads one of the largest biomedical engineering labs in the world.

“I observed a great model for entrepreneurship as a viable mechanism to fund research and development in academia,” says Henderson. “Applying nuclear chemistry technology to help personalize cancer treatment was the opportunity I was waiting for.”

In 2008, Henderson co-founded Accelerated Medical Diagnostics, along with Chong-Xian Pan, a clinical oncologist and associate professor of medicine at UC Davis. With offices in Dublin, Calif., a laboratory in Davis and the use of AMS instruments belonging to LLNL and Eckert & Ziegler Vitalea Science, the company is developing commercial tests for predicting the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs in individual patients. The startup is currently involved in clinical trials testing responses to platinum-based drugs in patients with bladder, lung and metastatic breast cancer.

Henderson is thriving balancing his roles in his company, UC Davis and Lawrence Livermore, where he maintains a visiting scientist position. He brims with ideas for expanding applications of AMS technology to more clinical trials, different cancers and other drugs.

“It is exciting to be pursuing a dream that has so much potential to do good,” says Henderson. “Personalized medicine is the wave of the future, and we’re using the most advanced technology to help us get there.”