With some 15 years of experience, Jorge Leon has a keen sense of the molecular diagnostics space — and it’s that perspective that makes him successful as what he calls “a CSO for hire.” Leon’s latest post is at Orion Genomics, where he serves as acting chief scientific officer and VP of business development.
But Orion didn’t just hire Leon. The diagnostics veteran, who was the vice president for applied genomics at Quest Diagnostics for several years and worked at Columbia University before that, now runs his own boutique consulting firm called Leomics Associates.
Leon doesn’t troll for customers the way you might expect; indeed, potential customers jump through plenty of technology benchmarking and other hoops, waiting as long as six months for Leon to decide to take them on as clients. That time is spent “taking a deep dive into the management, the technology, the applications, and the data,” Leon says. It’s no wonder he takes his time making a commitment: if an organization passes his tests for risk and potential for doing something truly unique to become a client, Leon “will not work with a competitor” and immerses himself with that particular company.
In Orion’s case, that means helping the company secure its series A funding, which he expected to have completed by the end of the summer; build alliances; publish peer-reviewed data; and develop its technology into a commercial product. Orion’s specialty in DNA methylation lends itself particularly well to cancer diagnostics, an area with tremendous growth potential but few existing players.
Molecular diagnostics as a whole has had a slow start, representing “maybe $3 billion” of the broader $30 billion diagnostics market, but is “becoming hotter and hotter,” Leon says. Thanks to efforts from gene expression to proteomics, he adds, there’s plenty of new content and targets for studying drug response (with opportunities for companion diagnostics for therapeutics) as well as biomarker evaluation — where Orion’s in situ cancer analysis tool would fit in. Leon has his sights set on gene methylation as the most promising of potential diagnostics because “the earliest molecular event that happens during the endogeny of cancer that we can detect in serum or biological fluids happens in DNA,” he says.
Orion’s technology, which can detect and quantify methylation changes across the genome, will first be aimed at diagnostics for ovarian, lung, prostate, and breast cancer, Leon says. “By early next year,” he predicts, “Orion will emerge as a very significant player in this space.” Of course, he’s paid to say that — but no doubt the industry will keep its eye out to see what happens.
— Meredith Salisbury