How did you come to set up a spin-out company during your PhD?
The Cytosponge test consists of a ‘sponge on a string’ that can be swallowed as a pill. Cells are collected from the sponge and analysed for signs of Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition that can potentially lead to the development of oesophageal cancer. With the Cytosponge, there is no need to perform an invasive and expensive diagnostic endoscopy.
The idea of the Cytosponge predates me. The test was invented at Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald’s lab, with which I am now collaborating. The BEST3 clinical trial is assessing whether the Cytosponge test is effective in increasing the detection of Barrett’s oesophagus in patients with reflux symptoms in a primary care setting, and to evaluate the cost effectiveness of this approach. The results of this trial were published in July 2020.
I have a computational background and experience in applying machine learning to healthcare data. I had the idea that we could think more broadly around the technology of the Cytosponge. This led to spinning out a company – called Cyted – with Professor Fitzgerald about a year ago. Now I wear two hats: the PhD student’s, and the CEO’s. I am doing both jobs full time!
What is your company’s mission?
Initially, we’re supporting the implementation of the Cytosponge. We’ve partnered with a company called Medtronic to manufacture and provide the device itself, and we are dealing with the samples as they come in. We’re currently working with tests that use cells from the Cytosponge to diagnose Barrett’s oesophagus, but we are working on other tests that might give more useful insights into the details of the diagnosis. For example, what stage of disease is the patient at? How likely is the disease to develop into cancer? It’s not a binary yes or no; there is an entire spectrum of barriers to and drivers of cancer.
Going beyond the Cytosponge itself, we’re using state-of-the-art computational and deep-learning technology to build digital pathology tools and capability. Right now, most pathologists still receive their slides manually and they must put them under a microscope. We want to support the development of an early detection technology environment that enables pathologists to do digital analysis. The technology we are developing is applicable to other areas of early detection of cancer that involve aberrant cell morphology or changes in cell or tissue architecture, not just to oesophageal cancer.
How has CRUK supported your entrepreneurial work?
We have been working with the commercial partnerships team closely. They were not involved in the creation of our company, but we are negotiating a deal with them that will allow us to exploit histological images from the BEST2 and BEST3 trials. We plan to use the samples from the Cytosponge test as a training set to develop our semi-automated detection technologies. We are also currently in conversations with the commercial partnerships team about a patent application.
This article was written by Sarah Venugopal and originally posted in Cancer Research UK’s Research Features. Read the rest here