Bengaluru-based oncology-focused startup trains its sights on personalised cancer treatment and care, and chances of relapses
OncoStem Diagnostics today announced it has raised $6 million in a funding round led by Sequoia Capital. Existing investor Artiman Ventures also participated in the funding round. OncoStem will use the funds to deepen its R&D efforts, develop effective tests for oral, brain and colon cancer, and automate these tests. The company plans to expand its presence in India, and introduce the tests in new markets in Asia and Europe.
Two young relatives diagnosed with breast cancer, who later passed away, set the course for Dr Manjiri Bakre. With a PhD in Cell Biology from IISc, Manjiri had a post-doctorate fellowship underway and had worked in Singapore for five years when she moved back to India in 2007.
“I realised that we don’t diagnose the disease enough and we need to know the tumor biology in lot more detail to attest how aggressive the disease is. In the west, breast cancer patients in their early stages are categorised as low or high risk for cancer reoccurrence,” she said.
In most treatments, the tumor is first removed and a re-occurrence is prevented using local radiation therapy or chemotherapy, followed by hormone therapy. “The hormone therapy is, in fact, given for five years and is great for preventing cancer occurrence.”
Working the market
Manjiri understood there was a requirement for a test that could diagnose low and high risk cancer occurrence. “We needed to develop a test that was built for Indian patients, be cost-efficient and also be validated globally,” she said. Manjri. With this idea, OncoStem was born in 2011.
OncoStem predicts cancer recurrence based on the molecular fingerprint of a tumor using Proteomics- and Genomics-based platforms.
On why they chose to invest in OncoStem, Anjana Sasidharan, Principal, Sequoia Capital India Advisors said the company filled a critical gap in the market, helping spare thousands of cancer patients from severe chemotherapy, the associated toxic effects, and resultant costs.
She said the technology and pricing could fundamentally change patient access to such cutting edge tests, which have been prohibitively expensive in most markets globally so far.
“Also, the biomarkers discovered through OncoStem’s predictive analysis of cancer recurrence will help pharma companies in developing new targeted drugs. We are extremely excited by the potential that Manjiri and team have to shape the paradigm of care in cancer treatment,” Anjana said.
OncoStem Diagnostics maintains robust, international standard quality management systems in its work processes: It is an ISO 15189/NABL accredited laboratory, and CanAssist-Breast is ISO 13485 accredited, and is CE-IVD marked. OncoStem is focused on developing multiple tests for different types of cancer, including oral and colon.
The company’s lead product ‘CanAssist-Breast’, which the team is currently developing, will help close to 50 percent of breast cancer patients avoid the severe side-effects of unnecessary chemotherapy, and improve quality of life.
In order to get its business running, OncoStem Diagnostics had to have on board hospitals to get tumor samples. In order to do so, the company did a retrospective study of tumor samples that hospitals received five to 10 years ago.
“All the associated information on the patient was given by the hospital. It helped us set up the laboratory and get things going,” Manjiri said. But there was one link missing - funding.
The problem with startups like OncoStem is that potential investors look for a basic prototype. However, Artiman Ventures believed in the product, and decided to invest in the company based on Manjiri’s plans.
Dr Ajit Singh, partner at Artiman Ventures and adjunct Professor at Stanford School of Medicine, said that being the first investor in the company, it has always believed in OncoStem’s potential to be a global company.
However, biotechnology, genetics, and oncology research are not areas that one hears much about in the startup space. From Kiran Mazumdar Shaw’s work to the one-off biotech company getting funded, news flow is few and far between. But now, the focus on healthcare has been increasing.
Sequoia also recently funded MedGenome, while 1mg recently raised Series C funding, Also, there is a growing focus on startups to solve deeper healthcare problems in India.
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