Quanterix Developing Instrument to Detect Cancer at its Earliest, Most Curable Stages

Quanterix made the news this week when it raised the second half of a $15 million financing round from Arch Venture Partners, Bain Capital Ventures, and Flagship Ventures. The Cambridge, MA-based company has no trouble commanding attention, since its technology comes from the lab of Tufts University researcher David Walt, a co-founder of Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the high-flying San Diego-based maker of biological research tools.

Despite the company’s pedigree, though, Quanterix’s latest round was covered as a run-of-the-mill VC financing blurb. So, I contacted CEO Nick Naclerio to learn more.

The company, which started in June 2007, is working on what it calls a Single Molecule Array, or SiMoA for short. It’s supposed to be 1,000 times more sensitive than the standard Elisa tests, made by big players like Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) and Becton Dickinson (NYSE: BDX), that are used to detect antibodies in a blood sample and which can diagnose whether a patient has been exposed to HIV, West Nile Virus, or other pathogens.

Quanterix has a prototype device, Naclerio says, and the new capital will be used both to further develop the technology platform and for preliminary clinical trials. The company’s aim is to use SiMoA to find the tiny concentrations of proteins that can’t be seen by Elisa. One example might be a millimeter-wide tumor, at the very early stages of growth, that sheds minute amounts of signature proteins into the blood. It’s theoretically possible the test could spot tiny amounts of proteins that are linked to Alzheimer’s, Naclerio says.

“We are able to count individual molecules,” he says. “Generally, the more sensitive you are with a diagnostic, the better.”

Lots of work still needs to be done to establish how useful such a test might really be, Naclerio says. For instance, clinical studies will have to be done to show whether tiny concentrations of a protein in the blood are really an early sign of bad things to come with cancer. Until a trial says otherwise, it’s possible that small tumors might simply be mopped up by the immune system, and might cause people to be worried for no good reason, I suggested.

Naclerio didn’t disagree, which is why he added that the company is working with physician collaborators on which meaningful proteins they really would like to look for in the blood if they had a powerful device that could find them.

The company plans to concentrate initially on known proteins, and isn’t going to spend its research budget looking for new proteins that could help with early detection of cancer. However, one well-known project of that kind is the International Cancer Biomarker Consortium, led by Nobel Laureate Lee Hartwell, president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Given how much promise Hartwell and his collaborators see with proteins serving as early warning signs of cancer, it seems likely Quanterix won’t have much trouble finding researchers who want to use its precise new tool to learn about those diagnostic clues lurking in the blood.

“This technology has the potential to open up a lot of new applications in diagnostics,” Naclerio says.

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