How Inventors’ Vision for Early Cancer Detection Got a $2.1 Billion Boost

Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures helped with patent protection, licensing strategy, lab space and more.

Pictured above: Thrive co-founders Ken Kinzler, top, Nickolas Papadopoulos and Bert Vogelstein.

Published in Dome - Dome January/February 2022

This article first appeared in the Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures newsletter.

Johns Hopkins researchers Nickolas Papadopoulos, Ken Kinzler and Bert Vogelstein have spent their careers working on ways not just to treat cancer but to detect it before it becomes a threat. The goal: a blood test for the earlier detection of cancer incorporated into routine medical care.

Their dream is closer to reality thanks in part to a $2.15 billion acquisition of their company, Thrive Earlier Detection Corp., one year ago by Exact Sciences Corp., a global leader in cancer-detection testing.

“The acquisition of Thrive is a giant leap toward ensuring blood-based, multicancer screening becomes a reality and, eventually, the standard of care,” Kevin Conroy, CEO of Exact Sciences, said in a statement announcing the deal. “By combining the expertise of both organizations, we believe we can bring this powerful technology to patients faster.”

The heart of the researchers’ work is the liquid biopsy, a test done on a blood sample to look for signals derived from cancer cells circulating in the blood.

In 2011, they invented SafeSeqS, a next-generation gene sequencing technology that simultaneously and individually analyzed millions of DNA molecules to identify mutations in the bloodstream more accurately than other methods.

Two years later, SafeSeqS was incorporated into a pilot study of their liquid biopsy test, which used cervical fluid obtained during routine Pap tests to detect endometrial and ovarian cancer. The “PapGene” test accurately detected all 24 endometrial cancers and nine of 22 ovarian cancers in the study. In 2018, the researchers reported that PapSEEK, the screening test, was nearly 99% specific for cancer and detected 81% of endometrial cancers and 33% of ovarian cancers in a study of 2,000 samples from nearly 1,700 women.

This success was due, in part, to help from Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, a division of the university created in 2014 to support the translation of Johns Hopkins University research into commercial applications benefiting society.

Since 2015 when Papadopoulos, Kinzler and Vogelstein formed a startup, PapGene, to commercialize the test, JHTV has helped the trio with patent protection, licensing strategy, fundraising and negotiations. JHTV also has provided incubator space and services to help them set up their initial, federally certified lab space.

PapGene used lab and office space at FastForward, JHTV’s accelerator, and continued work on the test. Meanwhile, Papadopoulos, Kinzler and Vogelstein developed another liquid biopsy test to detect multiple forms of cancer, called CancerSEEK. A study published in 2018 in Science evaluated CancerSEEK in eight cancer types and found it performed with greater than 99% specificity and with sensitivities ranging from 69% to 98% for the detection of five cancer types — ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreas and esophageal — for which there are no screening tests available for average-risk individuals.

Investors and industry officials reached out to JHTV after the paper was published, says Christy Wyskiel, JHTV’s executive director.

“With this type of technology, with such huge potential to save lives, it was really incumbent on JHTV to move quickly and get the smartest investors and executive team in place to move the technology forward,” she says.

CancerSEEK and methods for the detection of cancer were licensed in 2019, and PapGene ultimately became Thrive Earlier Detection Corp., a new company that launched with $110 million in initial funding, the largest initial investment for a Johns Hopkins technology.

In April 2020, Thrive and researchers from Johns Hopkins announced that a multicancer blood test based on CancerSEEK was given to 9,911 women with no evidence or history of cancer. It safely detected 26 undiagnosed cancers, enabling potentially curative treatment in a subset of them. The study, called DETECT-A (Detecting cancers Earlier Through Elective mutation-based blood Collection and Testing) represented the first time a liquid biopsy blood test was used for that purpose. Three months later, Thrive announced another $257 million in funding. Then, in November 2020, Exact Sciences announced it would acquire Thrive for more than $2.15 billion.

Thrive’s trajectory sends an important signal for researchers at Johns Hopkins, Papadopoulos says: The opportunity is available to translate their discoveries through the commercialization process.

“JHTV has become an invaluable and essential campus resource, and it has been satisfying to watch the university’s innovation enterprise be leveraged by so many other enterprising faculty and students,” says Papadopoulos, a professor of oncology and pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Thrive is also positioned to have a significant impact on the Baltimore biotech ecosystem, Wyskiel says. Since its founding, Thrive has conducted its research and development in the 1812 Ashland building, part of Johns Hopkins’ innovation hub on its East Baltimore campus. The company now has 60 employees and 35,000 square feet of lab space in Baltimore, both figures double the numbers from the start of 2020.

Papadopoulos, Kinzler and Vogelstein continue to advise Thrive on scientific and clinical matters.

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