Metamark, Stealthy Startup with Dana-Farber Roots, Seeks to Tell Docs When to Treat Prostate Cancer, and When Not

2/24/11

Metamark Genetics has graduated from stealth mode. Now the Cambridge, MA-based startup, founded by top scientists at Harvard University and elsewhere, has hired a diagnostics industry veteran as its chief executive, and set a public goal for releasing a product that could change the way physicians decide how to treat prostate cancer in its early stages.

Mark Straley, the company’s chief executive, says he joined the company in November 2010 after serving as president of the healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson’s (NYSE:JNJ) global diagnostics group. He joined other heavy hitters at the startup such as Kenneth Weg, the company’s co-founder and chairman, who was previously the chairman of the cancer drug maker Millennium Pharmaceuticals (sold to Takeda Pharmaceuticals for $8.8 billion in 2008). Also, Lynda Chin, a scientific founder from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, was part of the founding team at Aveo Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:AVEO), another Cambridge cancer drug developer that’s been on a roll of late.

Now Straley, who says he previously had about 1,500 people working under him at J&J, is wearing multiple hats as chief of a 20-person startup that hasn’t yet made a big name for itself in the diagnostics world. The company, founded in 2007, has raised about $30 million from undisclosed investors. But, according to the big plans the CEO laid out to me, the company’s star might rise pretty quickly over the next couple of years.

Metamark aims to release a molecular test to provide prognostic information that will help physicians make better treatment decisions. This test is scheduled to be available in the second quarter of 2012, Straley says. The firm raised its profile in the scientific community this month when some of its academic founders published their findings, in the prestigious academic journal Nature, about four gene markers that help predict whether a man’s prostate cancer is programmed to spread to other organs or is relatively harmless. This could give doctors more data with which to decide whether to take aggressive actions against the tumors (such as surgical removal and chemotherapy) or to basically just monitor the disease.

The startup is using those findings—based on the work of its co-founder Ron DePinho (another Aveo founder), the director of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Belfer Institute of Applied Cancer Science, and others—to develop a panel of gene markers for its prostate cancer test, Straley says. Today, doctors can take tissue samples from the prostate and inspect the cells under a microscope, which can give them clues about whether the tumor could become lethal or remain relatively docile. Yet Metamark’s test in development might be able to expose the true nature of the cancer at the molecular level.

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