Small local company works to detect cancer early
De Soto There are 25 people, including 16 scientists, working inside a building just north of Kansas Highway 10 in this town of about 6,000 people.
It may be a small group in a small town, but their plans are big and could potentially save millions of lives.
They are researching, developing and conducting tests that detect cancer in its earliest stages.
“It’s such a motivating cause to work for. In fact, it’s sometimes hard not to work,” said Laura Peek, principal scientist and quality assurance manager.
She works for Oncimmune, a biotechnology company that was founded by Dr. John Robertson at the University of Nottingham in England.
The company opened its U.S. headquarters in 2006 in a temporary location in Lenexa and then moved to De Soto in 2008.
This summer, the company began offering a blood test called EarlyCDT-Lung to help detect lung cancer in asymptomatic patients.
The test is offered at 20 sites, and involves about 100 physicians, in the Midwest and Southeast. Five of the sites are in Kansas — three are in the Kansas City area, one is in Hutchinson and one is in Clay Center.
“The nice thing about this test is that you can detect lung cancer three to five years quicker than finding symptoms from a patient,” said Dr. Chris Ottinger, of Encompass Medical Group in Lenexa, who has been offering the test to his patients. “If you detect it early, you can have it removed surgically and possibly have a cure. You increase your cure rate greatly if you can find it early.”
Here’s how the test works:
• A tumor produces proteins known as antigens.
• Tumor antigens are distinct from antigens produced by normal cells.
• The body’s immune system reacts to selected antigens created by tumors by producing an abundance of antibodies, known as autoantibodies, that freely circulate in the bloodstream.
• EarlyCDT-Lung measures a panel of these autoantibodies from a blood sample. These autoantibodies are the markers that potentially indicate the presence of tumor protein or antigens.
• The presence of one or more of these autoantibodies in the blood sample can provide an earlier indication that a tumor exists.
If a test comes back positive, further testing generally is the next step.
Oncimmune’s U.S. medical director is Dr. William Jewell, who was the first director of the cancer center at Kansas University and has more than 45 years of experience in the cancer field. He calls every doctor who has a patient who gets a positive result using the EarlyCDT-Lung test and works with them on that next step.
“We are very, very personal in how we approach this,” said Greg Stanley, vice president of commercial operations.
So far, the company has done a “few hundred tests” and about 40 tests have been positive.
“We are still working on the outcomes to see the results of those 40 initial positives,” Stanley said.
Ottinger said two of his patients had positive results and they were thankful to know that they needed to take a closer look.
For patients who get a negative result, the test can provide a sense of relief or even an incentive to quit smoking. Early clinical tests indicate that 99 percent of patients with a negative result do not have lung cancer at the time of testing.
The test costs $200 and insurance providers don’t cover it; company leaders are working to change that. The test is covered under some companies’ health-care spending or flex spending accounts.
Ottinger said many patients have been interested in getting the test, but have opted out because of the cost.
“The problem is the economy,” he said. “To be honest, it’s just the cost of paying for anything right now. We would love to have insurance cover it.”
That’s because he thinks it has the potential to save many lives.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 161,000 people die of lung cancer each year and about 215,000 new cases are diagnosed.
When lung cancer is diagnosed early, survival rate increases about 50 percent, but currently only 16 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed early.
The test is recommended for individuals who are smokers, former smokers or have been exposed to secondhand smoke for extended periods of time.
According to ACS, smokers account for nearly 80 percent of lung cancer deaths.
The test also is recommended for people who have been subjected to environmental factors such as asbestos, radon or radioactive substances.
The company has a risk calculator on its Web site — oncimmune.com — that was developed from risk tables created by clinicians at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
During the next six months, Oncimmune will be adding another 75 to 100 sites, and then the hope is to go nationwide.
“We wanted to make sure we took manageable bites as we kicked off the test and we kicked off the company on a commercial basis,” Stanley said.
Such an approach is what hooked Ottinger, and last week he became a medical consultant for the company.
“The more I learned about them, the more I was impressed by the high quality and careful steps that they are taking to produce a high-quality test,” he said. “It’s not a fly-by-night.com-type company. They really are taking an intelligent approach to launching a fantastic idea.”
Lots of work
During the past 15 years, $25 million has been invested into the lung cancer detection test. Samples from more than 80,000 individuals, both with and without cancer, were used in the development and research phase.
“You wait and you wait and you wait and you start seeing the light at the end of tunnel, and finally the light is there,” said Peek, the principal scientist. “It’s just a huge sense of accomplishment.”
The company doesn’t plan to stop at lung cancer. It aims to develop early detection tests for other cancers.
“We are funded by a variety of private institutional and family investors, I would call them angel investors and most of them are out of the U.K.,” Stanley said. “Their drive is they have all been touched by cancer in their life, so there’s a real sense of mission.”