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MDxHealth and Ghent University Begin Collaboration under New Pharmacoepigenomics Center

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A new partnership between diagnostics manufacturer MDxHealth and Ghent University's laboratory of pharmaceutical biotechnology aims to develop epigenomics-based diagnostics for more personalized treatment of cancers and inflammatory diseases.

The collaboration, called NXTGNT and launched on Dec. 1, will take place under the umbrella of a new "Center in Pharmacoepigenomics" housed at the university.

Jan Groen, MDxHealth's CEO, told PGx Reporter this week that the company will offer the university expertise that will help make its discoveries more rapidly available to the commercial sector, while the university's biomarker discovery and bioinformatics strengths will start the collaborators off on a strong foot.

"We as a company bring to the table our knowledge in developing assays: the so-called design control process," Groen said. "Because … if you've done all your development work within that process, you can quickly bring that product to market or partner with another company to take over the whole program."

MDxHealth Chief Scientific Officer Wim Van Criekinge told PGx Reporter that the university's experience in epigenetic sequencing and data analysis will be an important strength for the new pharmacoepigenomics center.

"Their key experience is in doing the preprocessing of samples to get an epigenetic sample. And then, after the sequencing, there is also a lot of expertise in doing the bioinformatics and data analysis. That is really a key [strength] of the university – analyzing sequencing data," he said.

Dieter Deforce, a University of Ghent professor and one of the NXTGNT partners, said in a statement that by collaborating with the company, the university "will ensure that results from our research … will be brought to the market in a more efficient way. Bringing the right partners together with the necessary contacts in the pharmaceutical industry will allow us to further advance in the field of personalized medicine."

MDxHealth has worked with Ghent University previously for biomarker discovery work, but the new partnership will be a much more integrated collaboration. Groen said six MDxHealth employees are now headquartered on the school's campus with the new center.

"We have been collaborating with the university for a while, but this is of course a big change for us as well as them," Groen said.

According to the company, MDxHealth's proprietary technology platform, which involves a method called methylation-specific PCR, will join the university's own technology base in the new center.

"Our contribution will focus on oncology and developing companion diagnostic assays. Most of the [center's] work will be focused on biomarker discovery and early development of new technologies and products for both pharma companies and for our own product pipeline in the US for various cancers," Groen said.

According to Groen, MDxHealth's current pipeline involves diagnostic and prognostic assays for prostate, lung, brain, and bladder cancer. Most of the firm's assays in development are based on measuring methylation of the MGMT gene.

The company announced in July that it was collaborating with Merck KGaA on a companion diagnostic to help pick out which glioblastoma patients have a methylated MGMT gene and therefore should receive Merck's investigational integrin inhibitor cilengitide (PGx Reporter 7/11/2012).

Van Criekinge said that the new center will push the company beyond oncology, as well, specifically to inflammatory diseases, which have been the subject of research at the university. "Within the center, there are applications of epigenetics in many other disease areas … and the other ones where there will be a main focus are inflammation-based, so metabolic, cardiovascular and other inflammatory diseases," he said.

Van Criekinge said the partners will likely take much the same approach in tackling these disease areas as MDxHealth has done with its oncology assays "They are applying a similar approach; it's just that we will be applying it in different disease areas," he said. "But I think it's highly synergetic."

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