This story was corrected on Aug. 30, 2013. An explanation follows.
A new cancer treatment analysis center, which uses a process called “molecular profiling” in developing very specific cancer therapies based on an individual’s genetic code, has opened in McLean.
Personalized Cancer Therapy Inc., or “Perthera” for short, is the brainchild of three local residents including two medical researchers from George Mason University. The three came together in March, and began offering the new company’s services to the public.
“Research now confirms that each case of cancer is unique,” said McLean resident and Perthera CEO Craig M. Liddell, who joined the company in March. “We can now identify the specific DNA and protein drivers of every individual’s tumor and target which treatments have the best chance of working.”
Dr. Lance Liotta, along with Dr. Chip Petricoin III, are co-directors of George Mason University’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, as well as principals in Perthera.
The McLean company utilizes ever-increasing breakthroughs in genomics and proteomics that allow decoding of a person’s specific cancer cells. According to Liddell, cancer is a genetic disease that occurs in a cell’s proteins and Perthera screens both proteins and genes in the context of an individual patient’s clinical history. Specifically targeted therapies can potentially be more effective in battling runaway cancer cells, with fewer side effects and a potentially better chance of controlling cancer growth.
“Treating cancer isn’t a one-size-fits all proposition anymore,” said Petricoin. “Each individual’s chemistry now determines the right therapy for their tumor. What has been missing until now is a turn-key approach that provides the patient and their oncologist a simple solution to participate in this revolution.”
Currently most often applied to 4th-stage cancer patients after more traditional lines of therapy have failed, Liddell says that as researchers continue to learn more about the genetic and molecular aspects of cancer, targeted therapies could potentially become the first-line future of cancer treatment.
“The science behind the molecular profiling of cancer is strong,” said Dr. Michael Pishvaian, Perthera’s chief medical officer. “When a specific molecular abnormality can be detected, multiple trials have shown that a specific, targeted therapy unequivocally helps patients with advanced cancer respond better to treatment and live longer with a better quality of life.”
According to the American Medical Association, proteomics - the study of the structure and function of proteins and how they affect cells in the body - is already beginning to play an important role in drug discovery, diagnostics and molecular medicine because medical science has now determined there are links between genes, proteins and disease. Researchers and scientists around the world are working on developing a map of the human proteome – much like that of the human genome – that identifies novel protein families, protein interactions and signaling pathways, according to the AMA.
Onclogist Dr. Neil Spector, co-director of developmental therapeutics for the Duke University Cancer Institute, says that cancer research funding as a whole is moving away from developing new types of chemotherapies and instead being put more toward molecular profiling. “More molecular classification is needed in trial drugs, “ he said. “Molecular profiling is rapidly becoming a standard of care as more targeted therapies are discovered. It is already being used in breast cancer treatment, and moving towards being used against all cancers at earlier stages.”
Entrepreneur Dendy Young of McLean says he got involved in Perthera through his relationship with Alan Merten, President Emeritus of George Mason University.
“My background is all in information technology and government,” Young said. “Dr. Merten and I are friends and have known each other for years. One day he asked me if I had ever been to the GMU campus in Manassas where the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine is located. I said I hadn’t, so he set up a tour for me.”
Young said that after he met Dr. Lance Liotta and Petricoin, co-directors of the center, he went back and told Merten that a company should be formed to actually apply their findings. “Dr. Merten said back to me, ‘why do you think I wanted you to see it,’” Young said.
“Yes, I was the matchmaker,” Merten said. “I believe that the spark of genius is always lit when you bring together intelligent scientists and equally intelligent entrepreneurs. Cutting-edge corporate spinoffs also help the agenda of George Mason University in that they send the message that GMU is doing first-class stuff.”
According to Young, the company has so far worked with more than 50 patients, and is already making a significant impact as local oncologists are beginning to embrace the value of Perthera’s analysis and treatment insight.
“We have had great anecdotal success,” Young said. “It is too early to really brag about any long-term success, but we are seeing patients reacting positively to the therapies we are recommending based on their individual cancers. Tumors have shrunk and some appear to be recovering.”
According to Young, some local oncologists and the Lombardi Center at Georgetown University have begun working with Perthera and referring patients, who can expect to pay a few thousand dollars for Perthera’s services, which takes about four weeks once a biopsy is performed. Currently Perthera’s services are not reimbursed by insurance or third-party payers, according to the company website.
“We hope that will soon change,” said Young. “We hope insurance companies will soon realize that targeted therapies are ultimately less expensive than trying the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach to cancer therapy, which is hit-and-miss. Each unsuccessful trial using that non-specific approach can cost anywhere between $30,000 to $100,000.”
According to Merten, GMU has a financial stake in Perthera and he hopes the company will become financially successful as well as a major player in the budding science of molecular profiling.
“Perthera is so new there really isn’t any financial information to report at this point,” said company spokesperson Randy Barrett. “I can say that the company plans to become a national player in the molecular profiling sector within the next couple of years.”
Young, who is a significant investor in the company, said he is not sure when he will begin to see a return on his investment, but said he is currently being rewarded in other ways.
“This is something that needs to happen,” he said. “And it is the first time that I am involved in something that really helps people in serious trouble and saves their lives. It is indescribably rewarding.”
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified one of the directors of GMU’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.