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Cancer Tests Cheaper, Quicker With Tech

4 min read

Stage I Diagnostics Inc. of Little Rock has announced a partnership with Leinco Technologies of St. Louis that will generate faster and more affordable results for blood tests that can detect ovarian and prostate cancer in their earliest forms.

The startup was founded by Dr. Timothy O’Brien in 2005 at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ BioVentures. There, he studied 60 genes in tissue samples from UAMS patients.

The doctor concluded that a gene called hepsin was the “ringleader” that allowed cancer cells to spread to others parts of the body, Stage I President and CEO Don Fowler told Arkansas Business.

Before the Leinco partnership, an older technology called ELISA was used to process the blood test developed by Stage I.

Leinco offers a new technology called Luminex that generates results in 30 minutes instead of three hours and requires less labor because it is compatible with 20,000 instruments health care facilities use. That means providers don’t have to buy anything but hepsin antibodies, and selling those is what Stage I does.

Luminex uses beads that proteins bind to, Fowler explained. The beads can contain 500 components and are quickly spun at a set speed. The proteins that have nothing to bind to are discharged.

“It’d be like getting on a Ferris wheel and you liking someone and holding onto them so that they couldn’t be slung off,” he said. “Well, when you have the hepsin antibody, the hepsin attracts to it, so they hang on. Any other big protein that doesn’t have anyone to hang onto is slung off. This is what’s left. So you know you have hepsin there. And then you simply quantify how many are there and come up with a number.”

Arkansas Urology of Little Rock is already using the test; the Leinco partnership will take it nationwide, he said.

Not only is the test accessible, he said, but also affordable. It costs $99, whether insurance pays all or part of that or a patient pays for it, Fowler said.

The startup employs six people and hopes to expand the test to detect other cancers, such as colon, breast, lung and pancreatic cancer. It also hopes to expand its staff by adding researchers, medical technicians, salaried executives and, most of all, salespeople, over the next two years.

Fowler said Stage I is in negotiations to partner with a large in-state health care organization, but he declined to disclose details because the contract hasn’t been signed.

He said that partnership will make funding less critical and that the startup’s plan is not to borrow its way out of debt with investors but instead rely on partnerships. But, Fowler said, it will need investors to provide the next $500,000.

Tocol Gets $1M Investment
Another UAMS BioVentures spinoff, Tocol Pharmaceuticals, recently announced a $1 million investment by La Universidad Tecnica Particular de Loja, a university in Ecuador.

The partnership will introduce to the South American market its plant-based compound that protects people exposed to radiation.

The company also received a $50,000 Seed Capital Investment Program grant from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission in 2015 to develop the compound.

Tocol’s co-founders, UAMS professors Cesar Compadre and Philip Breen, previously developed technologies licensed to and developed by Safe Foods Corp. of North Little Rock.

Compadre said the compound can be ingested as a capsule or applied as a skin cream. It could help people involved in industrial accidents, cancer patients and especially those who live near the equator, as they’re routinely exposed to some of the highest levels of ionizing radiation.

His partner, Breen, said, “When you see the stories on the news lately, it’s almost encouraging everyone to run out and buy a bottle of the stuff, if we only had it ready to sell.” Referring to heated rhetoric by President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he added, “just in case they make a miscalculation with this international game of chicken that’s being played.”

The compound uses rice bran as a starting material, and that could be a boon to rice-producing Arkansas, Compadre said. Another starting material was jointly developed by UAMS and the university in Ecuador using a plant that grows in Ecuador.

The partners are seeking FDA approval, and that could take up to five years. But the compound could be sold in South America in two years, they said.

Compadre also said the company has raised about a third of the $4 million it will need to get there.

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