The future of cancer treatment will be nothing like it is today, and a new company is hoping to be at the forefront of the changes with help from the University of Iowa.
Immortagen is introducing a variety of products and service that will help oncologists provide patients personalized cancer care using the results of genetic testing of their tumors. Founded by four University of Iowa researchers, it’s expected to hit the market later this year with assistance from the UI’s Office of Research and Economic Development.
Representatives from the company discussed the firm and the university’s role in their successful start-up at the Iowa Board of Regents meeting on Wednesday.
Kristi Thiel, research scientist in the Carver College of Medicine and one of Immortagen’s co-founders and owners, says the company preserves the patient’s own tumor—which currently is thrown away in most instances —to be used as part of their treatment process. Immortagen has developed a genetic sequencing system that Thiel says is far more exhaustive than genetic tests used today so doctors have a better idea of what kind of cancer they’re treating.
The company then uses a proprietary algorithm to determine which drugs would be most effective to treat the cancer based on the genetic mutations the sequencing system finds and to predict the likelihood the cancer will recur.
“Current cancer treatment is based on the law of averages, where each patient is treated with what works best for the largest number of people. Rather, a doctor can develop a personal treatment plan based solely on the patient’s tumor profile,” Thiel says.
Immortagen will also preserve the tumor for future genetic testing, freezing it in liquid nitrogen and storing it in its lab in the BioVentures Center in the UI Research Park. Delivery of the tumor to their lab is arranged by the patient or their oncologist through the company’s website.
The business was incorporated in March 2014, by Thiel, Donghai Dai, in the Carver College of Medicine; Baoli Yang, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology; and Kim Leslie, professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology, who no longer has an ownership stake.
None of the researchers had any business management experience prior to starting Immortagen, however, so they turned to the university’s research and economic development resources to get their company off the ground. The UI Research Foundation and UI Ventures provided business guidance and training, is helping to license the technology for the commercial market, and arranged for $75,000 in start-up GAP commercialization funding.
The company’s leaders also participated in the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center’s (JPEC) Venture School, an intensive seven-week course where people who have what they think are great business ideas work with experienced mentors and possible investors to test those ideas and determine their viability. The class takes the customer discovery phase of building a business—when the entrepreneur gathers the information that’s needed to determine if there’s enough of a market to turn an idea into an actual going concern, a process that often takes a year or more—and take care of it in just a matter of months.
“Venture School was integral in helping us get our ducks in a row and learning how to take a really cool science concept and turn it into a business,” Thiel says.
“The Immortagen founders were the ideal Venture School team,” says Lynn Allendorf, JPEC director. “They embraced the customer discovery process and were willing to do the hard work necessary to turn their brilliant and potentially life-saving work into a commercially viable product.”
Thiel expects Immortagen to begin performing validation tests on tumors within a few months and hire up to ten employees within its first year.