On-Q-ity Strikes Deal With LabCorp To Help Researchers Spot Rare Tumor Cells

Xconomy Boston — 

On-Q-ity is betting that it can help improve cancer research and treatment by spotting the rarest of tumor cells circulating in the blood. Now the startup’s technology has found an important new benefactor in Laboratory Corporation of America (NYSE: LH).

Waltham, MA-based On-Q-ity is announcing today it has formed a strategic alliance with LabCorp in which the big research and diagnostics player will use its sales, marketing, and distribution muscle to commercialize On-Q-ity’s technology for detecting circulating tumor cells. LabCorp will pitch the technology to cancer drug R&D operations that want to do a better job recruiting the right patients into clinical trials, seeing quickly whether a new drug is working, and finding out early when patients are relapsing. Financial terms of the deal aren’t being disclosed.

“I am thrilled about it,” says Mara Aspinall, the CEO of On-Q-ity. “LabCorp has the ability to get this to researchers around the world, to small and large companies, to people in the process of putting together some of most important clinical trials for cancer. This is the first big step in making the technology broadly available.”

The LabCorp deal is clearly important for a fledgling technology developer like On-Q-ity, which formed in 2009 through the merger of a pair of startups. The On-Q-ity technology is supposed to be able to go a step further than the traditional diagnostic tools of oncology. It’s intended to find cells from tumors that are so small and rare they don’t yet show up on today’s most high-resolution CT and MRI imaging tools. Scientists hope that by using this kind of tool—which spots cells in blood samples that can be take repeatedly over time at a relatively low cost—they’ll have a rich new set of data to track how cancer spreads over time. Eventually, treatment regimens could be made more personalized by seeing in real-time whether a patient responds to treatment, or not.

The On-Q-ity technology has so far only been tested by a small group of beta users, and today’s deal with LabCorp means that it will get its first big shot at widespread usage. The hope is that by refining things like inclusion and exclusion criteria for clinical trials, and by determining more quickly when a malignancy has spread, that drug developers will be able to increase their odds of success with developing new medicines, Aspinall says. It’s a huge need for an industry in which more than 800 cancer drugs are said to be in development, an only estimated one out of 10 will be good enough to make it through all the necessary clinical trials, and where success is often defined as a drug that actually helps only about one out of every four patients.

Mara Aspinall

Mara Aspinall

By going first into the R&D market, On-Q-ity can start generating product sales early in its life, without waiting for what could be a time-consuming and expensive process of seeking FDA approval in a more regulated application like clinical diagnostics. The company also has its sights set on entering the diagnostics market, Aspinall says, but R&D makes sense as an initial market partly because it will give top researchers a sense of what else they can do with the tool later on.

On-Q-ity certainly isn’t the only company seeking to commercialize an instrument that spots circulating tumor cells. Veridex, a unit of Johnson & Johnson in North Raritan, NJ, has an FDA approved instrument for spotting circulating tumor cells. On-Q-ity, Aspinall says, is hoping it can establish a technical advantage through its system, which analyzes … Next Page »

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