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Measured protein activity -- George Mason University researchers roll out oncology-focused start-up company
ROCKVILLE, Md.—In late March, George Mason researchers Lance Liotta and Emanuel "Chip" Petricoin announced the formation of a new company called Theranostics Health, LLC, based on what they say is a breakthrough proteomic technology that can measure not simply the presence of disease in a patient biopsy, but of the ongoing activity of the protein targets in the sample.
The ramifications of providing this information are far-reaching, including use as a diagnostic tool to better inform doctors of appropriate treatment of cancer patients; better, more focused selection of patients for clinical trials; and drug discovery applications relating to the pathways of specific diseases.
"With the formation of this company, we will be moving cancer and other dread diseases into the era of personalized medicine," says Joseph W. Riley, president and CEO, who was brought on board to leverage his experience with other start-up companies. "We believe our technology will truly transform the way medicine is practiced."
For it first steps in operation, Theranostics Health will actively negotiate collaborations with pharmaceutical companies to use the company's proprietary protein array technology to both identify drug targets and assess anti-cancer drugs during preclinical and clinical studies.
"Our laboratories at George Mason have already partnered with some pharmaceutical companies," says Petricoin, the company's vice president and CSO. "But now we need to get it out into a commercial setting this year where pharmaceutical companies can use [the technology] for things such as hit-to-lead screening."
Once the company has some commercial traction in the pharma world, the intention, in 2008, is to bring the service to the clinic where doctors could submit tissue samples to Theranostics Health and use the results to better target cancer therapies to the individual patients.
"The percentage of Americans dying from cancer is the same as in 1971 when Nixon declared a war on cancer," notes Liotta, vice president of research and development. "And patient outcomes haven't changed dramatically in five years."
Where Theranostics Health can help improve this, founders say, is in applying their technology to measure the actual activity of the drug targets within a sample, not just its presence—information that can help physicians tailor therapy to the individual patient.
Liotta says that current methods of testing biopsies shows only whether cancer is present, without being able to differentiate one from another. The Theranostics approach can actually identify the different "hyperactive circuits" that drive cancer progression.
"Even though the two samples can look the same under a microscope, they might each be driven by a different hyperactive pathway," Liotta notes.
It is for this reason that many current cancer therapies only are effective for a relatively small portion of the patients taking them: they are only targeted to a portion of the hyperactive pathways responsible for cancer. Identification of the pathways will allow physicians to provide more effective and targeted treatment for their patients.
In addition, it should allow pharmaceutical companies to proactively screen for a broader array of oncology targets, as well as aid in the selection of patients for clinical trials by screening for and focusing on those patients most likely to respond.
For now, the company will offer the screening and diagnostics services from its lab at its headquarters here. The company will operate with a small staff and then look to add headcount as the demand for its services increases.
"There is a plethora of talent here in Montgomery County that we can draw from," says Petricoin. "Plus the skills of the workforce are easily transferable to our technology. It's not a new box that they would have to learn from the beginning."
And while the company would like to draw its customers from both sides of the healthcare continuum—both pharmaceutical companies and physicians—there is hope that evolving healthcare reimbursement schedules will boost the amount of work it get from the healthcare sector.
"Laser capture micro dissection just received an AMA reimbursement code," Petricoin notes. "If people are doing the micro dissection they can send us the samples and get reimbursed for it. It's one way we hope we can get more involved with molecular pathologists."