NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Belgian molecular diagnostics firm OncoDNA recently kicked off two new projects that should help the firm fine tune the application of its cancer testing services.
The activity follows a recent financing round that has enabled OncoDNA to build out its sales team as it courts new clients.
The first of the new projects, called Arche, involves three prospective studies of around 1,200 lung, bladder, and esophageal cancer patients and has a budget of €6 million ($6.4 million).
The second, dubbed Moncodaneum, has a budget of €10 million and involves placing the firm's OncoKDM software at cancer centers.
Both projects commenced in January, and Belgium's Walloon region contributed €9 million to support them.
"These projects will allow us to expand our knowledge in the cancer center setting," said CEO Jean-Pol Detiffe in an interview.
Detiffe discussed the company's projects, as well as OncoDNA's efforts to build its own sales force after it raised €7.7 million in a private placement last September.
OncoDNA was established in Gosselies, Belgium, in December 2012 to offer a variety of molecular diagnostic tests and software services for guiding cancer treatment. One of the company’s offerings is OncoDeep, a service that relies on next-generation sequencing, fluorescence in situ hybridization, immunohistochemistry, and other approaches to analyze solid tumors. The results of that analysis can be used to predict appropriate treatments for various cancers.
Another offering is OncoTrace, a blood-based sequencing assay for monitoring mutations in circulating tumor DNA. The assay, which the company launched as a service last year, targets 200 mutations found in a panel of 28 genes. Customers gain a list of new treatment options for targeted therapies.
OncoDNA uses Thermo Fisher Scientific's Ion Proton instrument to run its various sequencing assays.
According to Detiffe, the purpose of the Arche project is to demonstrate the effectiveness of using OncoDNA's OncoDeep test for solid biopsies together with its OncoTrace test for monitoring tumor recurrence in blood.
"The reason we are doing both tests [in Arche] is to have a complete picture of not only what is going on with the tumor but what is circulating in the blood," said Detiffe.
OncoDNA is working with cancer centers in Belgium to carry out the project, including Jean Pascal Machiels' lab at the Saint Luc Cancer Center at the King Albert II Institute in Brussels.
According to CSO Jean-François Laes, OncoDNA aims to show via the Arche project that by using OncoDeep and OncoTrace, clinicians will be able to improve the overall survival of their patients, compared to those who receive standard protocols, such as first- and second-line chemotherapies.
The company and its collaborators also hope to show that they can identify cancer relapse faster than other routine tests used to track the evolution of the disease.
The selection of bladder and esophageal cancers for the project also fits into the firm's strategy of targeting diseases that currently lack good prognostic tests and that are also of increasing interest to pharmaceutical companies.
According to the US National Cancer Institute, bladder cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the US. Esophageal cancer, while rarer, has been increasing in prevalence worldwide. According to Cancer Research UK, for instance, the rate of esophageal cancer has risen 43 percent over the past four decades in Britain, largely because of lifestyle factors, such as obesity.
"Until now, they were not the focus of big pharma as they are not so common and the biology is complex," said Laes. "Since their incidence is increasing, they have become more of a target for pharma, too."
Detiffe said that for these two cancers, OncoDNA's goal is to demonstrate the utility of its tests to identify targeted therapies and immunotherapies that are not yet approved, but that could improve survival rates.
Non-small cell lung cancer, the third cancer studied in the Arche project, is far more prevalent. According to the American Cancer Society, it is the second most common cancer, and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths.
Laes noted that genetic mutations and alterations are already employed to guide treatments for lung cancer patients. In Arche, OncoDNA will attempt to show how using OncoTrace will identify relapses earlier than other techniques. Moreover, the firm also hopes to provide oncologists with the specific mutations responsible for the relapse, as well as a treatment that is already recommended for the cancer in question.
According to Detiffe, if Arche is successful, it could help the company win reimbursement in Belgium for its OncoDeep and OncoTrace tests.
In addition to OncoTrace and OncoDeep, OncoDNA also offers OncoKDM, short for knowledge-driven medicine, a software-as-a-service platform that enables cancer centers to integrate and share genomics data from multiple platforms and approaches.
In Moncodaneum, OncoDNA will "open the solution to any kind of cancer center," Detiffe said, connecting centers across Europe, and enabling oncologists to work not only through genomic data but a variety of complementary tests, such as imaging data or tumor marker analysis.
"The goal is to increase the use of the system exponentially," he said.
Laes said that for its part, OncoDNA will interpret data generated in user laboratories. One beta tester for OncoKDM that will take part in Moncodaneum is Grupo Solti, a Barcelona, Spain-based non-profit association focused on breast cancer clinical research which maintains a network of clinicians in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
OncoDNA has been working with Solti since October, when the association began implementing OncoKDM within its Agata genomic screening platform. A spokesperson for Solti acknowledged that the group is taking part in both Agata and Moncodaneum but did not respond to additional questions.
Laes said that OncoDNA is providing interpretation of Illumina TruSeq, Ion Torrent AmpliSeq, and Sequenom MassArray data via its partnership with Solti, in addition to immunohistochemistry and proteomics data.
Adriana Terrádez, director of Valencia, Spain-based BioSequence, which represents OncoDNA in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, said in an interview that by working with Solti, OncoDNA has been able to develop a custom platform for the nonprofit that improves its decision making and patient monitoring processes.
"This is the first trial within the Moncodaneum program in which OncoDNA is offering a decentralized tool for local partners," she said of the work with Solti.
Detiffe and Laes declined to name any other collaborators taking part in the project. Laes acknowledged that there are other providers and offerings catering to the same market, such as Qiagen's OmicSoft business, Seven Bridges Genomics, or DNAStar, to name a few, but vowed that OncoDNA's OncoKDM service will be "more complete" as it integrates DNA, RNA, proteomic, immunohistochemistry, and other data in one informatics setting.
In addition, Laes said that OncoDNA will offer advice to OncoKDM users in terms of drug treatment, the activation and inhibition of pathways, ongoing clinical trials, and complementary tests, all via the Moncodaneum project.
OncoDNA will "work with lab managers to provide them with an objective analysis of the quality of the data and a comprehensive analysis of the results," said Laes.
OncoDNA's participation in Arche and Moncodaneum is part of a larger effort to win over new customers, especially in Europe.
Detiffe said that the company had mainly been gaining new clients via word of mouth or its various partners and distributors, but since closing its recent private placement, it has been keen to address the market more directly.
Since September, OncoDNA has hired 20 sales and marketing specialists to reach out to potential customers in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK, according to Detiffe.
"They are promoting not only OncoDeep and OncoTrace, but also OncoKDM," he said.
Looking ahead, Detiffe said, the firm only intends to intensify these efforts.
"We will visit more oncologists and hospitals all over Europe, while we concentrate on continuing our development," he said.
He noted that 95 percent of OncoDNA's business is already outside of Belgium.