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MGH test for cancer gets backing

$30m agreement aims to develop, expand use

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / January 3, 2011

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Boston researchers plan to announce today that they are partnering with pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to develop and bring to market a sophisticated, noninvasive test that can detect tiny traces of cancer cells in a blood sample.

The partnership — a five-year, roughly $30 million deal — is aimed at refining and commercializing a next-generation test that could allow physicians to better target cancer-treatment regimens and monitor patients’ responses to drugs.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have already developed a prototype of a microchip that can detect tumor cells at extremely low levels in the bloodstream. The effort to be announced today intends to draw on the expertise of scientists familiar with how to bring such technologies to patients and doctors.

“We’re limited by our ability to make it fast, easy, cheap, and something that could be done on a global scale,’’ said Dr. Daniel Haber, director of the MGH Cancer Center. “Our goal is to build together a third-generation technology. . . that would be so easy to use and so standard, it wouldn’t have to be a research tool.’’

By detecting cancer cells through a blood test, doctors could better follow the disease’s course — looking to see whether the level of cancer cells circulating drops with treatment. It would also allow doctors to test the genetics of the cancer cells, considered by doctors to be critical because many cancer drugs are targeted treatments that work against a cancer with a particular mutation.

Because bloodstream-borne cancer cells are extremely rare — with about one cancer cell per billion blood cells — the technology must be able to detect extremely rare cells.

Already, the Boston researchers have developed a prototype and they, along with four other research institutions, have received a $15 million grant from the organization Stand Up to Cancer to test the prototype. But that technology is expensive and complicated to use, with each chip costing about $500.

Now, Mass. General researchers will work together with Veridex LLC, a Johnson & Johnson company, and Ortho Biotech Oncology R&D, a unit of the pharmaceutical giant, drawing on their expertise in areas such as clearing regulatory hurdles and clinically validating new tests. Haber said that it is roughly a $30 million deal, depending in part on achieving intermediate milestones and successes.

The investment is a powerful vote of confidence for the technology, but the chip is in the experimental stages, and it is impossible to know now how successful it will be in guiding cancer treatment. Haber said the test has been used experimentally in about 200 patients. Haber co-leads the project with Mehmet Toner, director of the BioMicroElectroMechanical Systems Resource Center at Mass. General.

To detect the extremely rare cells, the new technology uses minuscule channels carved into a silicon chip, coated with a special glue-like substance. When the blood filters through the channels, Haber said, the technology is able to pick up, on average, about 10 cancer cells per milliliter of blood in patients with metastatic cancer, disease that has spread from a primary tumor to other parts of the body.

“If the technology gets more and more sensitive, we may be able to use this as an early diagnostic,’’ Haber said. “You might be able to pick up any tumor which invades into the blood system, and that could mean there is a chance of catching tumors before they spread.’’

The deal is part of a broader effort at Mass. General to push scientific breakthroughs and promising basic research into potential clinical applications faster.

“What we’re trying to do is to develop a more efficient process for translating our early-stage innovations to the point where they can impact patient care,’’ said Frances Toneguzzo, executive director of the office of research ventures and licensing at Partners HealthCare. “We’re doing that by, at least in this case, partnering with a company that can provide the market information and help us with regulatory’’ hurdles.

Veridex, the company that is partnering with Mass. General, has already successfully brought to market one technology used to detect circulating tumor cells.

“This new technology has the potential to facilitate an easy-to-administer, non-invasive blood test that would allow us to count tumor cells, and to characterize the biology of the cells,’’ Robert McCormack, head of technology innovation and strategy at Veridex, said in a statement.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.