In 2009, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Chorom Pak was part of a group of researchers working to understand how sensitive patients’ cells were to certain therapies for blood cancers, such as multiple myeloma.
The group, which also included UW-Madison professors Shigeki Miyamoto and David Beebe, and postdoctoral fellow Edmond Young, would receive large numbers of patient samples from hospitals containing cancer cells so that the researchers could analyze them, Pak says.
One major challenge they faced was that some of the samples, which were derived from patient biopsies, did not have large enough counts of cancer cells to be useful to the researchers.
“This was very unfortunate because these patients were volunteering to give us biopsy samples, but we were only able to analyze about half of them,” Pak says. “And on the scientific side, we were potentially biasing our data.”
Given that frustration, they decided they would try to miniaturize the culture system they were working with, so that it would be possible to analyze all of the samples rather than having to throw some of them away, she says.
It took more than three years to finalize a design for a device able to functionally analyze low numbers of blood cancer cells. Soon after, in 2013, Pak formed Lynx Biosciences, a Madison, WI-based startup she continues to lead. The ultimate goal is to be able to test cancer drugs—either alone or in combination with others—on a patient’s own cells, so that people caring for the patient can create an individualized treatment regimen. Lynx is currently in the middle of a second clinical study of the device, and working to secure seed-stage financing (more on those efforts below) to further advance the technology toward FDA approval.
Multiple myeloma occurs due to the accumulation of cancerous plasma cells. The disease can be treated, but there is no cure. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year, there will be 30,280 new cases of multiple myeloma, and 12,590 deaths resulting from the disease.
The assay Lynx is developing is designed to be able to culture both cancerous tumor cells and healthy “normal” cells from the same patient. This “co-culturing” capability allows clinicians to see whether cells live or die in response to a particular drug, Pak says.
Other researchers have tried creating similar tests in the past, she says. However, many of those tests used cancer cells in isolation, and she believes that’s one reason they haven’t worked very well.
“We believe that we’re getting such good results because we’re adding in normal cells from the same biopsy,” Pak says. “We believe [tests that only use cancer cells] are not as representative of what is going on in the patient’s actual cancer microenvironment. We feel that’s the advantage that we have.”
That advantage comes partly from the miniaturized aspect of the technology, Pak says. She gives a large portion of the credit for making the assay so small to Beebe. One of his specialties is microfluidics, a field that involves working with tiny amounts of fluid at the micro scale in medical devices and diagnostics.
Once the research group had a design for a miniaturized culture system, it came up with the … Next Page »