Connect2Innovate Special Part 2 - Liquid Biopsy

 

By Ambisha Sarvananthan, Resource Manager and Writer, Science Entrepreneur Club

Over the past few decades, professionals in the life science industry have been creating innovative ways to diagnose and test diseases efficiently. One of them is liquid biopsies – a method of obtaining blood, urine or cerebrospinal fluid to detect cancer cells –  which can be used to predict a variety of diseases by identifying specific biomarkers [1].

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This non-invasive technique is much more efficient compared with a standard method called tissue biopsy [1]. The future of liquid biopsies is in an advancing field, which has been applied in the relevant healthcare areas. However, despite its excellent design in diagnostics, it comes with its own unique challenges. These challenges include sensitivity issues preventing the method to become a standard test [1]. There is hope that the advancement of therapeutic technologies can improve this tool. Liquid biopsy technologies will play an important and evolving role in the future of diagnosis and care for patients. 

Merck Accelerator partners up with Clustermarket and the Science Entrepreneur Club to support innovative startups working on novel technologies related to the three Fields of Clean Meat, Bio-sensing & Interfaces and Liquid Biopsy Technologies under the theme of ‘Connect2Innovate’.

The first two meetups about clean meat and biosensors took place late this summer in London and Cambridge respectively and they were a great success. Now it is time for the Liquid Biopsy Meetup in Oxford on the 21st of August.

Difference between tissue and liquid biopsies

Biopsies have been the forefront technology used in all healthcare facilities to identify and diagnose patients in a variety of diseases. For example, biopsies have been used to assist diagnosis of cancer, hepatitis, kidney diseases and other specific infections [3], and provide the first step in tailoring treatments to the patient's health problem. 

Tissue biopsy is a medical procedure used to observe and examine a small tissue sample under the microscope. The tissue sample can be harvested from several organs of the patient’s body including skin, kidneys, lungs and liver [3].  

Whereas liquid biopsy is a minimally invasive technology, it is used to detect various molecular biomarkers [4]. To perform a liquid biopsy, the process involves extracting a small blood sample from a patient and screening for specific genetic markers [4]. Currently, biomarkers can detect degraded fragments and cells called cell tumour DNA or tumour cells that are released into the blood plasma [5]. Therefore, liquid biopsies show a great promise in determining the molecular profile for cancer patients. 

Advantages and disadvantages of liquid biopsies 

Tissue biopsy has provided a clear picture for diagnosis of disease, however, the method holds risks for being invasive. On the other hand, liquid biopsy is a non-invasive method and as such is less risky [6]. The method can be easily repeated and is less costly compared with tissue biopsy. Additionally, liquid biopsies assist in early diagnosis, as test results are produced much faster compared with tissue biopsy. 

A drawback of tissue biopsy is the lack of detecting tumour heterogeneity, which is the difference between each tumour cell. Tumour heterogeneity has limited the progression of cancer therapeutics due to increasing resistance to cancer treatment. Tumour cells are diverse due to their distinct molecular structure [7]. To give you an analogy, scientists thought tumour cells were similar to each other, like Maltesers, however, they have found that tumour cells are highly diverse, like Smarties.

Here is a simple model displaying tumour heterogeneity. Scientists have previously thought that tumour cells were similar to one another, like Maltesers (image on the left), however they are quite different to each other like the Smarties (image on the right).

Here is a simple model displaying tumour heterogeneity. Scientists have previously thought that tumour cells were similar to one another, like Maltesers (image on the left), however they are quite different to each other like the Smarties (image on the right).

This makes it difficult to come up with cancer treatments to target tumour cells. When a tissue biopsy is taken, it may not be representative of the whole tumour. 

While tissue biopsy provides a snapshot of a certain cellular environment, liquid biopsy can provide monitoring of drug response and resistance. For example, a common method is using next-generation sequencing monitor the hotspots mutation in cancer driven genes and metastatic progressions localised in ctDNA [8]. Real-time monitoring helps healthcare professionals to administer the appropriate treatment. 

Currently, the utilisation of liquid biopsy is limited within the medical community. There are no sufficient data from clinical studies illustrating the value of liquid biopsies and test sensitivity issues limit the advancement of the method [9]. Therefore, more studies are needed to assess the test's accuracy in detecting various biomarkers.

Although liquid biopsy has become a revolutionary diagnostic tool, it is far from being considered a standard test. Merck’s accelerator programme though is hoping to unlock its potential and bring it a step closer to becoming a tool for personalised medicine.

A few newcomers and champions in this space (UK):

  • Cansense Ltd delivers a blood test which is equivalent to a liquid biopsy for bowel cancer. They are using a label-free assay and combining laser spectroscopy with advanced data analytics. The development of a high throughput platform allows our diagnostic solution to be scalable. (https://cansenseltd.com/)

  • DECancer.AI artificial intelligence detects early cancer through analysis of an affordable blood test and the patient’s medical history, allowing for early treatment and care and increasing the chances of the cancer being cured. (https://bit.ly/2MqtLdW)

  • Mursla is a startup developing a portable diagnostic device that leverages proprietary nanostructures to significantly improve cancer detection. Their technology has the potential to simplify the whole cycle of cancer management through utilizing a novel, non-invasive procedure called liquid biopsy. (https://www.mursla.com/)

  • Inivata is a global clinical cancer genomics company employing the precision of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) to improve personalized healthcare in oncology. (https://www.inivata.com/)

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To hear more from the latest startups in the Liquid Biopsy space, including Cansense Ltd and DECancer.AI , and from the Merck Accelerator team, come along to our  ‘Connect2Innovate’ event in Oxford, at the Oxford Science Park on Wednesday the 21st of August.

If you want to let Merck´s experience in partnerships Accelerate your business, apply now for the program! There are different ways to qualify for the global Merck Accelerator:

  1. Participate in the “Connect2innovate” meetups, pitch on the final event in September and win the “Golden Ticket” to the Merck Selection Days.

  2. Apply directly to the program via the Accelerator website. For application and more information click here  - Applications are open until August 25th.

 

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