Armune Bio’s Cancer Detection Tech Finds New Home with Exact Sciences

The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, held earlier this month in San Francisco, is a popular venue for biotech companies to announce new deals and milestones achieved.

One such announcement from this year’s event has largely flown under the radar:  Madison, WI-based molecular diagnostics company Exact Sciences acquired Armune BioScience, a cancer diagnostic startup with offices in Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, MI. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“Armune is scaling down,” says David Esposito, the company’s president and CEO. “Exact Sciences acquired all of our intellectual property and assets underlying our technology. For all intents and purposes, we have ceased marketing our products.”

After steady growth, Armune was looking to get its products to a wider market, and Exact represented the right match, Esposito says, because of a similar cancer-detecting mission. Exact’s lead product is a stool-based colorectal cancer test called Cologuard, and during a presentation at J.P. Morgan, Exact CEO Kevin Conroy told the audience that Armune’s technology would help the company develop tests to detect other cancers, including those of the lung and breast.

“They want to address the 10 deadliest forms of cancer,” Esposito adds. “Our library of biomarkers complements their technology.”

Armune got its start in 2008, when it was formed by former members of the Apjohn Group, a life science startup consultancy and investment firm. The technology powering Armune is a library of biomarkers licensed from the University of Michigan that could be used to test the body’s immune response to prostate, lung, and breast cancer.

Armune’s lead product, Apifiny (pronounced like “epiphany”), is a non-PSA, non-tumor-specific blood test designed to help doctors detect prostate cancer. (PSA refers Prostate-Specific Antigen, a protein naturally produced by the prostate gland that typically increases when cancer is present.)

Apifiny measures the body’s immune response and autoantibody levels to figure out if it’s fighting prostate cancer. Apifiny uses an algorithm to determine the patient’s risk on a scale of zero to 100— the higher the score, the higher the risk. Esposito says Apifiny helps physicians to identify lower-risk patients, enabling a more relaxed monitoring program.

Esposito was first introduced to Conroy a few years ago at the annual Michigan Growth Capital Symposium event. Conroy, being a Michigan native and an alumnus of U-M’s law school, had offered Armune helpful guidance along the way.

“They followed our growth, and we reached a point in 2017 where we were seeing a lot of interest from other companies,” Esposito explains. “A few months later, we had a deal [with Exact].”  Two of Armune’s lead scientists have joined the Exact team; they are the only Armune employees being absorbed as part of the acquisition. Exact Sciences will also maintain Armune’s Ann Arbor lab.

The Michigan connection tying the two companies together, as well as the local support Armune received as it grew, has made Esposito’s journey to this point especially satisfying, he says.

“There’s a vibrant and supportive early-stage life sciences community in Michigan. The MEDC has helped us, the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University’s Research Foundation—they helped not just with money, but with time, counsel, and support.”

As for he’ll do next, Esposito says he’s not sure, but it will likely be in the realm of diagnostics.

“It’s a very purposeful mission to be on the forward edge of discovery tools to help in the early detection of cancer,” he says. “Being involved in that kind of work was great. I’m hopeful that as the dust settles, I’ll join another innovative company.”

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