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With Seed Funding, Startup Liquid Biotech Targets Research, Clinical Markets With CTC Isolation Platform


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) — Having just secured $2 million in seed funding from Oncolys Biopharma, University of Pennsylvania spinout Liquid Biotech will continue refining its proprietary circulating tumor cell (CTC) identification and isolation technology with the goal of making it available for research use as early as mid-2016.

Meanwhile, the technology continues to be tested in clinical studies being run by company co-founders, which Liquid Biotech hopes will lay the groundwork for its diagnostic use, President and CEO Philip Sass told GenomeWeb this week. 

Liquid Biotech was founded by Penn researchers Jay Dorsey, Stephen Hahn, and Gary Kao around a CTC tracking method invented by Oncolys and collaborators, and to which Liquid Biotech holds a license.

The technology essentially involves a green fluorescent protein-expressing, telomerase-specific, replication-competent adenovirus that drives two genes under a promoter for telomerase-dependent virus replication. Because normal cells express telomerase a very low levels, if at all, and tumor cells express the protein a high levels, the adenovirus only replicates in tumor cells, allowing them to be visualized via fluorescence, Sass explained.

Seeing the potential of the technology, Dorsey, Hahn, and Kao began testing it in the clinic, and last year reported on its use to track CTCs in the peripheral blood of 30 non-small cell lung cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy.

Specifically, they were able to detect CTCs in the majority of patients, including more than half prior to the start of radiation treatment and in patients with both epidermal growth factor receptor wild-type and mutation-positive tumors.

The researchers have also joined CTC detection with cell isolation, earlier this year reporting data showing that the combined methods could be used to detect live circulating melanoma cells in blood samples from patients, as well as isolate those cells for genetic analysis.

Sass noted that while that paper involved the use of a cell-isolation technology from NeuroInDx, Liquid Biotech is currently developing its own microfluidics-based technology for isolating individual cancer cells.

At the same time, Liquid Biotech's founders are continuing to test CTC-detection technology in three ongoing clinical trials at Penn, including one evaluating Viracept (nelfinavir mesylate) in combination with radiation and temozolomide for glioblastoma multiforme.

Because brain tumors typically lack the cell surface biomarkers used with current tumor cell detection assays, Liquid Biotech's approach may prove particularly useful for brain cancers. In 2014, the company's co-founders reported preliminary data in Cancer Research showing that the technology could detect brain tumor cells in peripheral blood, and are following up on these findings in the current study.

Sass noted that Oncolys agreed to provide an additional $1 million in funding to Liquid Biotech based on an undisclosed clinical milestone in the trials, extending the firm's cash runway past the estimated 16 months that the initial investment provides.

Ultimately, Liquid Biotech hopes to market the technology for clinical applications such as interpreting treatment responses in patients and differentiating pseudoprogression from actual tumor progression, he said. It could also potentially be used as the foundation for companion diagnostic assays.

While the company works to generate the data necessary for those sorts of uses, Sass said that it anticipates being able to start selling the technology as early as mid-2016 for research purposes, leveraging its ability to isolate individual tumor cells for analysis. Doing so, he added, would provide a source of modest non-dilutive revenue for the company to help fund its R&D efforts.