Oxford Gene Technology, a British genetics and biomarker research firm, announced this week that it has taken a license to a series of microRNAs that the company aims to develop into a blood-based prognostic/diagnostic for prostate cancer.
Specific terms of the license, which was granted by the Institute of Cancer Research, London, were not disclosed.
According to John Anson, executive vice president of research and development at OGT, the company has long focused on clinical genetics research and genomics, which include products and services in cytogenetics, RNA sequencing, gene-expression analysis, and microRNA analysis.
However, the company has also been developing a portfolio of biomarkers for cancer and autoimmune disease, which he said represents an “investment play where we’re using the technologies we have in-house … to try to discover novel biomarkers.”
OGT’s most advanced biomarker work centers around colorectal cancer, based on a panel of methylated DNA markers, and systemic lupus erythematosus, using a panel of protein antigens. But the company has also been exploring the use of miRNAs to differentiate between indolent and aggressive prostate cancers.
Anson said that there has been much work already conducted by other research groups linking miRNAs to prostate cancer, noting that “there has been something in the region of 150 microRNAs identified [as] associated with primary prostate cancer [and] … about 120 microRNAs associated with metastatic prostate cancer.
“This is a busy space — we recognize that,” he said.
Yet often the findings between studies don’t match up, with miRNAs found to be up-regulated in some instances but down-regulated in others, Anson added. “One of the concerns we had was [about] how well controlled” these studies were.
“We were particularly interested in try to get a good match between the cases and the controls, which is [why] the samples we got from ICR are really interesting,” he said.
Anson explained the ICR had collected prostates from cancer patients who underwent surgical prostatectomy, then sliced them into numerous samples that were examined by a pathologist.
Because prostate cancer is a heterogeneous disease, “they found regions of the prostate which had aggressive cancer, they found regions of the same prostate which had less aggressive cancer … and they found regions of the same prostate which had no cancer at all,” he said.
With that collection, OGT has been able to run microarray analyses on both diseased and healthy prostate tissue, with the same patient essentially providing both disease and control samples.
The result was a series of “informative” miRNA biomarkers in which the company had “a lot of confidence,” Anson said.
“We did in excess of 130 different samples,” which yielded “a small subset of microRNAs [that] had statistically relevant changes between the cancer and the control, and which had reasonably good fold changes,” he said. “We narrowed [those] down to a smaller panel, and it is that smaller panel of less than 10 markers that we’re looking at now in terms of further development” and have licensed from ICR.
OGT has been able to acquire a limited number of matched blood and tissue samples from individuals with aggressive prostate cancer, Anson said, as well as from controls including healthy individuals and patients with benign prostatic hyperplasia — an enlargement of the prostate that does not lead to cancer but often confounds prostate cancer diagnosis.
With these, the company is looking to further validate the miRNA biomarkers it has already identified, both in tissue and, most importantly, in plasma since any prostate cancer test the company developed would be blood based.
“The idea that you could have a [sort of] ‘liquid biopsy’ … and be able to infer the prognostic nature of the disease from that blood test rather than from an invasive procedure — a needle biopsy,” he said.
Thus far, results have been promising, Anson said. “The initial indication in the handful of samples we’ve looked at is that we can detect these microRNAs in blood” and they appear to be up- and down-regulated in ways that correspond to the expression changes seen in tissue samples.
Still, “this is very early stage,” he stressed, adding that OGT is currently on the lookout for new collaborators that can provide “clinical samples and … clinical input.
“We have reached out … locally and have some good collaborations lined up, but we are aware that there are plenty of interesting tissue and sample repositories all around the world,” he said.