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IRB Barcelona Nets $1.3M to Fuel Cancer Dx, Bioinformatics Spinoffs

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Botin Foundation of Madrid has awarded €1 million ($1.3 million) to fund two technology spin-off initiatives at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Barcelona, including projects that will develop and seek to commercialize a test for colon cancer metastasis and a bioinformatics platform for simulating new drug designs.

On top of the funding, the Botin Foundation also will provide the spin-offs with management, coordination, and consulting support with the aim of luring venture capital investments within two years and eventually moving these technologies to market.

One of the projects, called COLOSTAGE, seeks to develop a test that can identify the properties of colon cancer cells that enable them to metastasize and would be used to distinguish patients who should have chemotherapy from those who would not benefit from the treatments, as well as to optimize the treatments.

The research behind this test was conducted by scientists at IRB Barcelona's Colorectal Cancer Laboratory and was published late last year in the journal Cancer Cell.

The project has shown that when tumor stem cells reach the liver, a common site for colon cancer metastasis, they release a molecule called TFG-beta into the microenvironment. The surrounding cells in this microenvironment produce interleukin-11, which causes genetic changes in the tumor stem cells that enables it to survive in the liver.

"Until now, if we wanted to know whether a colon cancer patient was likely to develop metastasis, we would look at their tumor cells," Eduard Batlle, head of the Colorectal Cancer Lab and a leader of the study, said in a statement when the study was published in November 2012.

"This study has shown us that, instead of looking at the seed, we need to be looking at the earth. We can predict if a plant will grow if the ground, or substrate, in which the seed is planted is fertilized. TGF-beta is the fertilizer that changes the earth in which the tumor seed grows," he said.

Batlle and his partners found that about 15 percent of colon cancer patients never develop metastasis, and that this is related to whether or not the healthy cells, or stroma, in the liver have been modified by TGF-beta.

They now plan to develop a diagnostic test that will analyze the genetic signature of the stroma by looking for TFG-beta, interleukin-11, and other molecules. Researchers believe the test could be used to identify the 10 to 15 percent of patients who may no longer need chemotherapy and other patients who may require more aggressive drug treatments.

The other initiative that received Botin Foundation funding is called Nostrum Drug Discovery, an IRB Barcelona effort to develop a bioinformatics simulator that will help scientists simulate drug design, bypassing the need for clinical trials.