Following a Hunch, Startup Develops Early-Stage Ovarian Cancer Test

Published in Insight - May 2016

A group of oncology researchers was simply acting on a hunch when it found solid evidence that cells from early-stage ovarian and endometrial cancers could travel to the surface of the cervix.

“This research showed that cancer cells could travel a long way from their source of origin and still be detected,” says Howard Kaufman, CEO of Johns Hopkins startup PapGene. 

That meant cells collected during a Pap test—in use for decades to screen for cervical cancer—could potentially be used to screen for ovarian and endometrial cancers too.

“If specific genetic defects can be detected in collected ovarian or endometrial cancer cells, it’s a reliable sign that the patient has an associated cancer,” says Isaac Kinde, PapGene’s chief scientific officer and a 2015 graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“And, when detected early, most cancers can be successfully treated with therapies available today,” Kaufman explains.

The researchers—including Chetan Bettegowda, Luis Diaz, Kinde, Kenneth Kinzler, Nickolas Papadopoulos, Bert Vogelstein and Yuxuan Wang—filed a patent on their work in 2013. Four of them also filed a patent on a DNA sequencing system that can detect very small percentages of mutant DNA in cell samples in 2012.

In 2014, the researchers incorporated the company, and the following year, they licensed the technologies from The Johns Hopkins University.

PapGene is headquartered at the FastForward Homewood innovation hub, where Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures facilitated the construction of a laboratory designed especially for the startup.

In the next few years, Kaufman hopes to make the test available to patients. Until then, PapGene is focused on conducting clinical studies to gain regulatory approvals.

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