There’s currently no FDA-approved diagnostic screening for ovarian cancer. A Bainbridge Island company working with the University of Arizona is hoping to change that — and thanks to a $25,000 grant, they’re closer to achieving their goal.
Bainbridge-based medical manufacturing company Glannaventa was one of 20 companies to receive a $25,000 healthcare innovation grant from Life Science Washington Institute in partnership with the Washington State Department of Commerce. The grants prioritize entrepreneurs and companies located outside King County, as well as women-led and/or socially or economically disadvantaged companies throughout the state, with a goal of supporting early-stage companies focused on developing healthcare solutions that improve lives, according to a news release from LSWI.
“Life Science Washington Institute is proud to announce the grant recipients as part of our ongoing commitment to supporting the next generation of life sciences innovators,” said Richard Giersch, Life Science Washington Institute’s executive director, in the release. “In addition to the funding, the Life Science Washington Institute will offer technical assistance to all of the applicants and award recipients as they work to improve the health of Washington residents.”
“As a top life science hub, sufficient funding is essential to the success of Washington-based biotech companies,” said Alison Beason, Director/Sector Lead, Life Science & Global Health, Washington State Department of Commerce, in the release. “By partnering with LSWI, this funding provides continuous support to advance innovations by early-stage startups, that have potential to improve health outcomes.”
John Black, founder of Glannaventa, said the company has been working with colleagues at the University of Arizona for about 10 years on developing a device, called GEODE, to screen for ovarian cancer by imaging the fallopian tubes, where ovarian cancer is believed to originate. Professor Jennifer Barton at the University of Arizona just completed a 20-patient pilot study of the device, Black said.
How does the technology work? For comparison, Black pointed to autonomous cars, which have sensors that send out a pulse of light or radio waves that reflect off of a target and come back to the car. They’re called time-of-flight sensors, and they measure the time difference between light going out and coming back.
“The car basically says, OK, what’s the time difference between when the pulse left the car and when it came back from the target?” Black said. “And if you know that time interval, and you know the speed of light, you can calculate the distance based on that.”
“We do something very similar inside the fallopian tube,” he said. “We send out a pulse of light, it goes out and it reflects off the wall of the fallopian tube and comes back to the catheter. And that light doesn’t just reflect off the surface, it goes into the tissue and then comes back out again, and by measuring the time of flight — the time it took the light to go out to the tissue and come back — we can build up an image of the inner structure of the wall of the fallopian tube at the five micron level over a few millimeters.”
The technique is analogous to colonoscopies, in which a colonoscope about three meters long is inserted for video imaging.
“They’re looking for polyps and lesions that are on the order of several millimeters,” Black said. “And then the colonoscope is equipped with a biopsy device so they can reach out with the wire and snag a piece of tissue for the pathologist to look at. So we envisage our technique as being something similar to a colonoscopy in that the endoscope will be introduced into the fallopian tube and run the full length … [and] look around.”
If the device detects early-stage lesions, doctors can recommend follow-up action such as a detailed CT or MRI that could lead to early treatments like surgery or prophylactic chemotherapy, Black said.
The kind of cancer the company is targeting, called high-grade serous ovarian cancer, has a five-year survival rate after diagnosis of less than 25 percent, Black said. But if their diagnostic device can manage to identify the cancer earlier, when it’s only a few cells thick, that 25 percent survival rate could shoot up to more than 90 percent, he said.
There are currently no FDA approved diagnostic or screening techniques to detect ovarian cancer, Black said. “The current ones have a false positive rate that’s just way too high, and they also tend to bias toward the kinds of cancers that are less lethal, so the FDA actually discourages their use.”
Although the device, which is still in development and not yet for sale, has not been evaluated by the FDA, Black said they’ve had a conversation with the agency and that it supports the work they’re doing.
“I was kind of fully expecting them to say, ‘No, too many people have failed here. It’s just not worth it.’ But they looked at what we’ve done; they were supportive.”
The $25,000 grant will have a profound impact on the company’s ability to continue bringing its diagnostic tool to fruition, Black said. Previous funding, which included funds from the Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health, was helpful, but the research is expensive and the money goes fast. The grant money was a “huge shot in the arm in an engineering and technical sense,” Black said.
It was also a psychological boost, he added. “I’ve been working on this for a long time and there’s been a number of times when I thought, you know, I should really stop banging my head against this wall,” Black said. “And I just loathe to give up on this problem. It’s definitely a calling as opposed to a career move. So getting that grant … was huge psychologically as well as just financially.”
In addition to receiving grant funds, the awardees join the LWSI Commercialization Support Program, which “ensures life science entrepreneurs and early-stage companies have access to the mentoring and resources required to start and grow in Washington state,” according to the news release.
“By providing access to resources such as a nationwide partnering network, free consultants, mentors, grant writing workshops and networking events, companies have a guide to ensure success, work with other emerging companies and secure funding opportunities. All Washington Competes applicants will receive a gap analysis from LSWI’s expert panel with suggestions for other activities that entrepreneurs may consider to move their company initiatives forward.”