Quanterix Uses Fiber Optics to Find Cancer Protein, Nears New Funding Round

5/27/10

Both academics and industry have long sought ways to spot cancer in patients before it becomes deadly. This week, Cambridge, MA-based Quanterix said its single-molecule detection system could potentially find signs of prostate cancer recurrence lurking in the blood years before traditional lab tests.

The study, published in Nature Biotechnology, showed that Quanterix’s technology detected proteins in the blood called prostate-specific antigens (PSA) with 1,700-times greater sensitivity than existing diagnostics. The protein is a common biological marker in testing for prostate cancer. Beyond these findings, the company claims that its technology could be used to measure virtually all proteins in the blood that are linked to diseases, some of which are difficult or impossible to quantify with existing antibody-based blood tests.

Quanterix, founded in 2007, has previously garnered plenty of attention from venture capitalists and the science press. David Walt, the Tufts University chemistry professor who invented the startup’s technology, hit pay dirt with his previous company, San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN), which dominates the market for high-speed gene sequencing instruments. With Walt’s new technology, and his track record of success, Quanterix scooped up $15 million in a Series A round of funding in 2008 from big-name investors such as Arch Venture Partners, Bain Capital Ventures, and Flagship Ventures.

Quanterix’s new study refines its pedigree further. The firm’s single-molecule array system found trace amounts of proteins linked to prostate cancer in blood samples from which standard tests for the proteins found nothing, according to the company. All 30 of the samples in the firm’s study were from men who had surgery to remove cancerous prostate tissue, Walt told me in an interview. Men who undergo such surgeries typically get their blood checked for PSAs for years in order to detect whether their prostate cancer has returned, but those existing blood tests have limited sensitivity, and signs that the cancer has come back can go unnoticed for years, until it is too late.

“The Holy Grail would be if we could detect and predict that there’s going to be [a recurrence],” Walt said, “and a man would undergo radiation or chemotherapy at a much earlier stage than he would if he had to wait until his PSA levels rebounded to much higher levels.”

Quanterix plans to a larger clinical trial to actually show whether the levels of PSAs they are finding could be used to predict prostate cancer recurrence, Walt said. The company wants to begin marketing its prostate cancer test as soon as 2011. Its initial commercial plan would require physicians to send their samples to a central lab at Quanterix for analysis. The second test in the firm’s pipeline is being designed to spot trace proteins in the blood that are thought to be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

David Walt, Tufts chemistry professor

David Walt, Tufts chemistry professor

The startup’s technology marries materials used in traditional diagnostics known as ELISA with advances in fiber optics technology. The standard test materials are antibodies and enzymes that attach to proteins linked to disease. While Quanterix uses some of those same reagents to bind to disease proteins, it puts them into tens of thousands of tiny wells in bunched optical fibers. This second step enables the firm to use imaging cameras to count each molecule from a blood sample at the same time.

Dave Okrongly, the Quanterix’s CEO, said in an e-mail that his 20-person firm plans to raise a second round of funding this coming summer or fall, which will probably be similar to the company’s $15 million first round. The second round of financing, he said, is likely to include existing and new backers. (Okrongly spoke to Luke earlier this year about his big plans for the startup.)

The company is finalizing the design of its next prostate cancer trial, which will likely include blood samples from hundreds of patients and begin in the fourth quarter of 2010, according to Okrongly. He expects to be able to present results of the study in the first half of 2011 at conferences and publish them later in the year.

About 100,000 American men per year have surgery to partially or completely remove their cancer-ridden prostate glands. According to the National Institutes of Health, prostate cancer killed 27,360 men and was newly diagnosed in 192,280 others last year. While it’s bad news for the patients, this creates a large potential market for Quanterix’s prostate cancer test, if the firm can prove in its planned clinical study that its technology can do a better job than standard diagnostics in predicting a cancer relapse.

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