Researchers at the University of Arizona have developed a new blood test that can detect most major cancers and have launched a startup company to bring the technology to doctors and patients.
Bernard Futscher, a professor at the UA College of Pharmacy, and Lukas Vrba, assistant research scientist at the UA Cancer Center, developed the new kind of “liquid biopsy” — a blood test for screening, detecting and monitoring cancer.
The technology combines the latest discoveries in epigenetics — the study of biological mechanisms that turn gene activity on and off — with informatics, or advanced data-processing and analytics, to create a test that can detect and quantify the presence of cancer cells, the UA scientists say.
Futscher and his colleagues teamed up with Dr. Linda Garland and Dr. Samuel Kim, of the UA Cancer Center lung cancer clinical research team, and Dr. Daruka Mahadevan, director of the center’s phase 1 clinical trials team, to demonstrate the technology.
“We’ve successfully demonstrated that we can detect early stage non-small lung cancer,” Futscher said.
Tech Launch Arizona, the UA’s technology commercialization arm, helped the research team refine and protect its intellectual property and launch a new company, DesertDx LLC, in 2018 to commercialize the technology.
The company’s leadership team includes Mark Nelson, professor of pathology at the UA College of Medicine–Tucson, as CEO of DesertDx, Corey Hill as chief business officer and Futscher as chief science officer.
The cancer-detection technology is based on a process called methylation, by which cancers disrupt the makeup of DNA. The new blood test recognizes biological markers for methylation to detect and quantify the presence of cancer cells.
That will allow doctors to evaluate the effectiveness of cancer surgeries by comparing the levels of tumor markers before and after procedures, while also monitoring for cancer reoccurrences, the UA said in a news release.
Lisa Lin, TLA licensing manager for the UA College of Medicine–Tucson, said one of the best opportunities for the new test is to become a “companion test” with computerized tomography, or CT, scans.
“You might see a nodule in a CT scan image, but up until now we haven’t had an easy way to know if what we see is cancerous or benign. The only way is tissue biopsy,” Lin said. “This blood test allows us to characterize what we’re able to see in a scan and say whether it’s cancer or not, all using a routine blood draw.”
The test must still be approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration before it can be used clinically.
According to the UA, only one liquid biopsy product is currently approved by the FDA, and it is limited in scope, testing only for a mutation in an epidermal growth-factor receptor that helps doctors decide whether a specific drug will be effective for individual lung cancer patients.
The DesertDx team went through Tech Launch Arizona’s I-Corps program, a six-week course in customer discovery and “lean startup” methodology taught by instructors from the UA’s McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship and the Eller College of Management.
They also had guidance from TLA mentor-in-residence Marie Wesselhoft, an experienced bioindustry entrepreneur, as well as biotech marketer Joan Will during the I-Corps program, the UA said.
The researchers used grant money from Tech Launch Arizona’s asset-development funding program to collect samples from lung cancer patients and compared the methylation markers in those samples with those from healthy patients, to find the most effective markers for measuring the presence of cancer.