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28 January, 2019 - 12:41 By Tony Quested

Diagnostic screening test could dramatically cut cancer deaths

shankar balasubramanian, cegx, gv

Cambridge Epigenetix, a pioneer in the development and application of epigenetic technologies, has launched its discovery and development programme for a test to detect colorectal and other cancers.

This follows on the heels of a c.$30 million funding round, previously revealed by Business Weekly, which took the cash raised to date to $56.5m – plus the acquisition of exclusive patent rights for its epigenetic sequencing platform.

Epigenetic changes act as a control layer for the genome and can alter gene expression, but not the genetic code itself. These alterations may involve the presence of small chemical groups on the building blocks, or nucleotide bases, which make up DNA. 

DNA from cancer cells has a distinct epigenetic signature and this is the basis for the use of epigenetic tests in cancer testing.

“The global burden of colorectal cancer (CRC) is expected to increase by 60 per cent to more than 2.2 million new cases and 1.1 million deaths by 2030,” said Dr David Johnson – Professor of Medicine and chief of gastroenterology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, who serves on the company’s clinical advisory board. 

“Detection of CRC remains a challenge and the availability of a non-invasive, easy-to-administer and affordable screening test as our first initiative could transform the diagnosis, detection and treatment of pre-cancerous lesions and CRC.” 

In support of its mission, Cambridge Epigenetix has been granted broad and exclusive patent rights for the use of epigenetic modification 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC) as a diagnostic biomarker for cancer. 

Cambridge Epigenetix is using proprietary technology for analysing 5hmC in circulating free DNA (cfDNA) to develop a test for detection of CRC. The company is conducting a discovery study with over 2,000 patient samples, including healthy volunteers, and individuals with adenomas and all stages of CRC. 

This study follows encouraging preliminary results from profiling 5hmC in over 200 CRC and healthy volunteer cfDNA samples. Several independent studies have indicated that measuring 5hmC in plasma circulating cfDNA is effective for non-invasive cancer detection.

Sir Shankar Balasubramanian, co-founder of Cambridge Epigenetix, and Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, said: “Cambridge Epigenetix’s 5hmC platform analyses some of the earliest markers of cancer development in patients’ blood samples to detect disease. 

“Ultimately, our aim is to develop a diagnostic test that can detect multiple cancers from one standard blood draw.”

Ahren Innovation Capital (UK) led the c$30m funding round with current US-based supporters GV, New Sciences Ventures and Sequoia Capital. New investors – including DNA Capital (Brazil) – also participated.

Alice Newcombe-Ellis, founder & managing partner, Ahren Innovation Capital, said: “Cancer detection through liquid biopsy has the possibility of transforming human health.” 

Cambridge Epigenetix also has a new CEO – Dr Suman Shirodkar. Dr Shirodkar has extensive leadership experience in the industry and will lead the next phase of development of the diagnostic test. Prior to joining Cambridge Epigenetix, Dr Shirodkar led product teams in oncology, HIV, and cardiovascular medicine at Pfizer and Novartis.

“It is a very exciting time to be leading Cambridge Epigenetix,” said Dr Shirodkar. “Our ability to detect 5hmC in circulating, cell-free DNA, and the discovery and development of a liquid biopsy signature for tumours, could revolutionise cancer care and decrease cancer mortality through widespread screening, early detection and timely intervention.”

Following research at the University of Cambridge, the company was founded in 2012 by Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Dr Bobby Yerramilli-Rao, to commercialise its founding technology, oxidative bisulfite sequencing (oxBS-Seq), which enables users to quantify, and discriminate between, functionally-distinct DNA modifications – something which is impossible with traditional bisulfite methods.

Cambridge Epigenetix is utilising its disruptive and highly sensitive 5hmC profiling platform, based on the research of Professor Anjana Rao, in combination with minimally-invasive techniques such as blood testing (liquid biopsy), to provide affordable and accurate analysis of clinical samples to facilitate early detection of cancer and a number of other important diseases with unmet diagnostic needs.

The Cambridge business is supported by several high-profile investors which, besides Ahren, include  GV (Google Ventures), Sequoia, Syncona, New Science Ventures DNA Capital and the University of Cambridge.

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Sir Shankar Balasubramanian

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