When San Diego’s Epic Sciences raised $30 million almost three years ago, CEO Murali Prahalad told me he saw a big opportunity to use the company’s technology as a diagnostic test to assess how well a cancer patient is responding to specific anti-cancer drug regimens.
“Epic has been rapidly developing a portfolio, a series of predictive tests for cancer that tell a doctor whether a specific drug will work,” Prahalad said in a phone interview. Epic now has about 70 employees, and Prahalad said the new funding “will allow us to advance other tests that are in our portfolio, and accelerate advances in our research and development.”
The company said its first diagnostic test, the OncotypeDx AR-V7 Nucleus Test, is intended to determine whether a patient with late-stage prostate cancer would respond to hormone-based therapy or should be switched to chemotherapy.
The Epic diagnostic test uses a blood sample to identify a specific protein fragment in the nucleus of circulating tumor cells in patients with advanced prostate cancer. Epic says some patients with this truncated AR protein show resistance to androgen- directed drugs like abiraterone acetate (Zytiga) or enzalutamide (Xtandi). About 20 percent of these patients should be on chemotherapy instead, Prahalad said.
With the $40 million in Series D financing, Epic has raised a total of $90 million in the nine years since the company was founded, Prahalad said. Hermed Capital, a healthcare fund based in Hong Kong, led the new round, which was joined by Domain Associates, Altos Capital Partners, Genomic Health, Pagoda Investment, Reach Tone, RMI Partners, Sabby Capital, and VI Ventures.
Prahalad said the portfolio of diagnostics under development are intended to help screen patients for two new classes of anti-cancer drugs, in particular: poly ADP ribose polymerase (PARP) inhibitors and immune-oncology drugs. The idea is to help doctors identify the drug or combination of drugs that is most likely to work, Prahalad said.
Epic says its technology is sufficiently sensitive to screen the size, shape, and staining pattern of every nucleated cell in a blood sample that contains roughly 30 million nucleated cells. The process uses antibodies that fluoresce in the presence of circulating tumor cells and high-definition imaging to analyze these fluorescing cells. Prahald said Epic’s approach is accurate enough to pinpoint one circulating tumor cell per milliliter of blood.
Epic uses high-performance computing to help analyze and manage data from scores of additional tests, such as molecular assays that differentiate the type of cancer cells based on protein expression or genomic markers.
“You get a kind of snapshot from a blood draw” that can be used to monitor how well a patient is responding to therapy, Prahalad said. “We can look at all of the relevant cells in a blood sample and simultaneously give a snapshot on how the immune system is being activated or not activated at a given point in time.”
While there are a number of startups focused on what is broadly described as liquid biopsy technology, Prahalad said few are focused on developing predictive tests for patients with late-stage metastatic cancer.