Roswell Park Cancer Institute announced two breakthroughs Thursday -- its first spinoff company, and a test to predict whether a tumor will become the most lethal, fast-spreading type.
The genetic test is being developed by a spinoff company called PersonaDX. It should help early-stage cancer patients make a harrowing decision: whether to undergo painful and expensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, or risk going without.
"This is a simple blood test that will be able to predict whether a tumor will spread through the body or not," Roswell President Dr. David C. Hohn said.
PersonaDX is being launched with 10 employees in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. It could grow to 200 or 250 jobs once its test is in use at cancer treatment centers, company backers predicted. They expect the test to be available early next year, initially for breast cancer.
The announcement was hailed as a breakthrough for Buffalo's economy as well as for cancer patients.
"We have been dreaming of this collectively for years," Buffalo Economic Development Commissioner Richard Tobe said.
Roswell and other institutions have invested more than $100 million in new research facilities in Buffalo's medical campus, which investments have been slow to result in a hoped-for boom of biotechnology spinoff companies and jobs.
The announcement was the second at Roswell this month with implications for the local economy. On Jan. 12 the institute said it had attracted renowned tumor-growth researcher Andrei V. Gudkov and his company from the Cleveland Clinic.
Thursday's announcement focused on Roswell geneticist Lionel J. Coignet, PersonaDX chief scientific officer, who led the lab at Roswell that developed the test.
Coignet said the breakthrough involves a genetic variation, present in about 1 in 10 people, that is strongly linked to fast-spreading or "metastatic" tumors.
He compared the gene, called SMRT, to the bolt on the brake pedal of a car. Without the protein that the gene encodes, other genes that promote cell growth can "go wild," taking the brakes off a tumor's ability to spread.
In a study of 200 people with cancer, less than 1 percent who had the intact gene developed aggressive cancers, he said. Cancer patients who lacked the intact gene fared much worse: up to 50 percent of them were attacked by fast-spreading tumors.
Born in France, Coignet studied the SMRT gene as an assistant professor at Loyola University Medical Center in Illinois before joining Roswell's department of cancer genetics in 2002.
Roswell scientists spoke of Coignet's test on a par with the breakthrough PSA screen, a 1979 discovery that revolutionized prostate cancer treatment.
Existing tests to predict metastasis use biopsy results taken directly from a tumor, a more invasive procedure that gives less accurate predictions, scientists said.
Unlike with PSA, however, the cancer institute expects to develop and produce Coignet's test as a commercial venture in Buffalo, keeping its economic benefits in the community.
"Roswell Park has made a commitment to technology transfer," said Richard R. Matner, the cancer center's director of technology transfer. The institute has filed for three patents on the test technology to protect the invention, he said.
Roswell owns about 35 percent of PersonaDX in recognition for the resources it has sunk into the discovery, Matner said. It is working to develop the test in Buffalo with PersonaDX as the licensee.
Roswell tapped a Boston-area company, Venzyme Accelerator, to provide the business and investment expertise to help commercialize the test. Venzyme director John Garrett is serving as interim president of PersonaDX.
"I am completely convinced this is going to be a major company," Garrett said. The Roswell discovery "represents a fundamental shift in where metastasis comes from."
Initial investors, mainly private individuals, have pledged up to $10 million to launch PersonaDX, he said.
The company expects to open its facility in the medical campus this spring and prepare to conduct tests for cancer centers. Unlike a new cancer drug, the diagnostic product doesn't face years of testing for Food and Drug Administration approval. However, PersonaDX will conduct further trials to demonstrate the test's accuracy to hospitals and insurance companies, Garrett said.