In less than a decade, the Houston-based research services company ApoCell has made a name for itself amid the developing life sciences industry in Texas. Based on its rapid revenue increases, ApoCell has been named to the Inc 5000 list of fastest-growing private US companies for the past three years.
ApoCell has now set a new goal that could be seen as a kind of Holy Grail in molecular diagnostics. By 2016, ApoCell hopes to begin selling benchtop devices that could alert doctors when cancer drugs have stopped working for an individual patient, and might also help reveal which drugs are most likely to restore control of tumor growth.
ApoCell is one of several companies developing instruments that can capture tumor cells circulating in the blood of cancer patients. The number of these cells alone is a valuable clue to the severity of the disease, and the effectiveness of drugs. But in addition, once these rare cells have been isolated from the blood cells by the company’s ApoStream device, they can be tested to provide a snapshot of the signature molecular traits of the diseased cells.
Already this kind of molecular analysis, performed on cells from tumor biopsies, can often point to the drugs best tailored to attack particular cancer subtypes. But biopsies can be invasive and painful. The hope is that tumor cells could be routinely extracted instead from patient blood samples with the help of analyzers like ApoCell’s. This “liquid biopsy” could be repeated more often than a traditional biopsy, to track a patient’s tumor cell population as it evolves and develops resistance to initial drug treatments.
“The testing technologies used in tumor biopsies are applied to rare cells,” says ApoCell CEO Darren Davis.
It was ApoCell’s clients who, in 2007, sent the company on the hunt for a new way to pluck tumor cells out of the blood, leading to the development of ApoStream, Davis says. The company, which Davis founded in 2004, had quickly become profitable as a provider of tests such as genetic analysis and cancer biomarker detection for drug developers, he says. ApoCell was also offering a commercial test for blood levels of circulating tumor cells—the CellSearch system, marketed by Johnson & Johnson unit Janssen Diagnostics of Raritan, NJ. But pharmaceutical companies asked ApoCell to look for another method that would expand the range of information that could be gleaned, beyond the limits of the CellSearch product.
CellSearch delivers a total count of circulating tumor cells, and is FDA-cleared for clinical use in three major cancers—breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer. A rise in the mere numbers of such cells points to a poor prognosis in these cancer types, according to studies using the CellSearch system. A higher blood count of tumor cells indicates that … Next Page »