Ashok Chander, ’12PhD, was working on his dissertation when he stumbled upon a career-defining discovery: a set of biomarkers that could help risk stratify prostate cancer, sparing unnecessary surgeries. Recognizing the implications of his breakthrough, Chander brought his ideas to a Columbia Business School mixer for science and business grad students. There he met Dr. Mani Foroohar, MD, ’12BUS, and the two clicked right away. Together, they worked with senior industry experts to found Cellanyx in 2012 and began operations at an incubator in Boston.
The company is based on a novel diagnostic concept: instead of examining dead cells pressed between two pieces of glass, Cellanyx grows cultures of live cells from tumor biopsy samples in a fluid matrix. The live cells provide a rich set of information about the tissue in question by continuing to produce the same biomarkers they produced in the body, which in turn can reveal the presence of cancerous cells and specific characteristics of cancerous cells.
Chander explains the difference between live and dead cells as being like that between a photo of a Thanksgiving dinner and a video. The still picture shows where everyone was standing, but by studying the video, “one can see which family members get along versus which ones may demonstrate dysfunction.”
After a year of working to get funding and space for clinical laboratory trials, the Cellanyx team grew live tumor cells for the first time in 2014 and found that they outperformed existing methods for predicting the biological aggressiveness (local invasion and metastatic potentials) of prostate cancer cells. Cellanyx has won a number of peer-reviewed scientific poster awards and has a number of manuscripts in various stages of submission.
The company’s proprietary technology has three unique phases: first, biopsy cells are placed on a protein formulation / mixture which keeps them alive for up to three days. Then, machine vision software examines the sample, looking for specific biomarkers. Finally, a machine learning program analyzes the biomarkers and determines which cells exhibit properties predictive of local cancer progression and / or metastatic potential. Cellanyx anticipates the product can be commercialized as early as 2018.
The potential of live biopsy analysis goes way beyond prostate cancer — the team envisions Cellanyx’s platform revolutionizing the way all solid tumors are treated. Live cell analysis could be used to determine which drugs would work best for which patients, and perhaps one day help create highly specific medicines tailored to individual tumors. For Chander, the diagnostic application is just the beginning.
For now, though, there’s plenty of work to be done in the fight against prostate cancer. Every year, 1.3 million American men have prostate biopsies taken. Around 250,000 are deemed to have some risk for cancer, but roughly half are at a low enough risk that they don’t require any treatment. The company’s immediate goal is to keep these men from receiving painful and expensive treatments that they don’t need. With its focus on innovative screening and patient advocacy, it’s definitely safe to say that Cellanyx is going to have a profound impact on the lives of millions.