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Baltimore firm raises $110 million to bring Johns Hopkins' cancer-detecting blood test to market

Baltimore firm raises $110 million to bring Johns Hopkins' cancer-detecting blood test to market
Dr. Kenneth Kinzler, left, and Dr. Bert Vogelstein are among researchers at Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center who have worked to develop the test. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun 2014)

A newly formed Baltimore company has raised $110 million to commercialize a cancer-detecting blood test, developed by Johns Hopkins researchers, that doctors would give patients during routine physicals.

The blood test aims to detect cancer at earlier stages, when it is easier to treat. It’s designed to detect multiple cancer types, including pancreatic and ovarian cancers, two of the deadliest types.

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Thrive Earlier Detection Corp. plans to seek approval to bring the CancerSEEK test to market, officials at the Johns Hopkins University said Thursday.

“This is a giant leap forward in my 30-year-old dream of being able to offer cancer tests basically the same way that cholesterol tests are offered when people visit their physician every year,” said Dr. Bert Vogelstein, the Clayton Professor of Oncology at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, who helped develop the test.

The $110 million raised by the medical firm represents the largest-ever Series A, or early round, investment in a Hopkins technology by a licensee in Hopkins’ history, the university said. Johns Hopkins exclusively licensed CancerSEEK to Thrive Earlier Detection.

Christy Wyskiel, head of Hopkins Technology Ventures, called Thrive’s launch a “milestone moment” for Johns Hopkins biotechnology research and community.

The liquid biopsy test, which analyzes a highly targeted set of DNA and protein measurements from blood, could be used by primary care doctors to routinely detect cancers in their patients.

“Over the past 30 years we have made great strides in understanding cancer,” said Christoph Lengauer, co-founder and chief innovation officer of Thrive Earlier Detection and a partner at Third Rock Ventures, in the announcement. “Combining this knowledge with the latest in molecular testing technologies, our founders have developed a simple and affordable blood test for the detection of many cancers at relatively early stages.”

In the future, Lengauer said, blood tests for cancer would be part of routine preventative care, increasing chances that the disease could be caught earlier and treated more effectively.

Today, many cancers are detected at an advanced stage, when the disease has become difficult to treat. That’s often the case for diseases without screening tests, such as ovarian, pancreatic and liver cancers.

The test also reduces the chance of “false-positive” results that are common in early cancer screening and allows physicians to treat cancer patients earlier.

Researchers at the Kimmel Center developed the test over more than two decades. They include Vogelstein, also co-director of the Ludwig Center at Johns Hopkins; Dr. Kenneth Kinzler, a professor of oncology and co-director of the Ludwig Center; and Dr. Nickolas Papadopoulos, an expert in cancer diagnostics and Hopkins professor of oncology and pathology.

Vogelstein said his decades of research have focused on cancer prevention, studying genetic mutations as clues to detect cancer earlier and the belief that “perhaps the best way to reduce cancer deaths is to prevent cancer from forming in the first place.”

The blood test became possible only in recent years thanks to the advancement of digital technology, he said.

Now, Vogelstein said, Thrive has assembled the business and regulatory expertise in bringing diagnostic tools to market that will elevate the test’s development to the next level.

Ideally, he said, patients would be tested every two to three years to check for early signs of cancer. The test would not catch all cancers, but of those detected, some could be curable simply by surgery or through minimally invasive surgery, he said.

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The test is designed to detect tumors of the colon, rectum, liver, esophagus, ovaries, pancreas and stomach — cancers that account for more than 60 percent of the cancer deaths in the United States.

The CancerSEEK test is being evaluated as part of a study of 10,000 healthy women from ages 65 to 75 who have never had cancer and are otherwise healthy. Thrive plans to conduct additional clinical studies.

Third Rock Ventures, a Boston-based health care venture capital firm, led the initial financing round for Thrive Earlier Detection.

The company, which will have 25 employees initially, will move into Johns Hopkins’ “innovation hub” at its East Baltimore campus, installing its research and development facilities in a building on Ashland Avenue with Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, the division of the university that licenses technology and supports university startups. The company will also have an office in Massachusetts.

Wyskiel said the company’s launch shows that Johns Hopkins researchers are at the forefront of advancements in cancer diagnostics.

“And,” she said, “Baltimore is fertile ground for the commercialization of these discoveries into products that revolutionize health care.”

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