Omid Farokhzad has, as he says, “been around the block a few times” in biotech. The cancer nanomedicine researcher has cofounded a handful of companies that have tried to develop nanotech-based and other drugs for cancer and other diseases. But their results have been mixed. BIND Therapeutics had some clinical disappointments and went bankrupt in 2016 (with its assets going to Pfizer). And Selecta Biosciences this year had to stop a Phase 1 study after a patient death (although clinical testing of another Selecta drug is still underway under the helm of a new CEO).
The setbacks haven’t deterred Farokhzad from trying again with another biotech, this time, pivoting away from therapeutics and diving into diagnostics and early detection of cancer and neurological disease. And he’s all in. He quit his job as a professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital earlier this year, leaving academia and moving from Boston to San Francisco, to devote himself as CEO of his latest company, Seer, which debuted today. This is Farokhzad’s first time as a CEO and as a full-time biotech employee. He’s chairman of Selecta, and sits on the board of Tarveda Therapeutics, another company he cofounded, but he says he was too excited about Seer to be just a board member. “I needed to have my finger on the pulse of the company,” he says.
Seer is working on liquid biopsies, tests that look for key molecular signatures of disease in blood and other patient samples, without the need to take a tissue sample. Seer wants to develop tests that diagnose or screen patients before they show any symptoms. That’s a huge goal that other academic groups and companies are also pursuing, with large clinical trials enrolling many thousands of patients already underway. Menlo Park, CA-based Grail, for example, has raised more than $1 billion to develop a screening test for cancer and is currently running a trial with more than 10,000 patients.
In contrast, Seer is just getting off the ground. The startup has been operating for less than a year and has raised $36 million in Series A and B rounds, led by Maverick Ventures and Invus, respectively, with other investors.
Farokhzad says he switched his focus to early disease detection because that’s what he sees as the big need in patient care. “What is clear on the therapeutics side, almost no matter what angle you come in at, it is unlikely you will materially cure the patient or fundamentally change their health unless you detect the disease early.”
The liquid biopsy tests that Grail and others are developing look mainly for genetic mutations linked to cancer, but Seer is zeroing in instead on protein signatures from human blood samples that correlate with disease. Farokhzad says that Seer’s proteomics technology, so far unpublished, originated in his lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He says the platform uses nanotechnology-based “biosensors” to measure and profile the proteome in patient samples, and machine learning algorithms to crunch the data and find disease biomarkers.
Farokhzad wouldn’t give any details on how the platform works, but says Seer can broadly probe many proteins, including less abundant ones, faster than other methods, and from small amounts of blood and fluid samples. This, he says, will allow his company to study proteomics at a population level and generate enough data to tease out relevant disease signatures.
And proteins can provide signals of not just disease state, but also the body’s response to the disease, Farokhzad says, which might be helpful for diagnosing certain diseases that may lack a clear, detectable genetic fingerprint, like some neurological disorders.
Farokhzad adds that Seer, which has 20 employees, has already started clinical studies to study protein biomarkers from patients at various stages of cancer and brain diseases and look for strong correlations.
It’s still really early days for Seer, especially compared to others pursuing liquid biopsies. Grail announced earlier this year interim results from a subset of patients from its huge trial and showed that its blood test, which looks for specific mutations in tumor DNA, could detect about 40 to 90 percent of lung cancers, depending on the stage of the disease and the detection method used.
The accuracy of genomics-based tests isn’t quite good enough, particularly for early-stage disease, says Farokhzad. “Genomic information can only be part of the solution,” he says.
Indeed, another liquid biopsy, called Cancer-SEEK, from a Johns Hopkins University research group, looks for both genomic and proteomic biomarkers, and is also in clinical testing. In a paper published in January in the journal Science, the Hopkins researchers showed that their test picked up about 70 to 98 percent of cancers in more than 1,000 previously diagnosed patients, depending on the cancer type. The Hopkins team is now working with a health system in Pennsylvania to test Cancer-SEEK as a cancer screening tool in 10,000 women with no history of cancer.
Seer aims to develop both diagnostic tests for high-risk patients and screening tests. In the near-term though, Farokhzad says he plans to double the size of his company by this time next year.