Start-up uses VAI IP for molecular cancer solution

October 4, 2010
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Van Andel Institute’s business developer is teaming up with an experienced entrepreneur to launch a start-up to bring sophisticated genetic analysis to cancer patients through their doctors’ offices.

Jerry Callahan and Kevin McCurren founded Intervention Insights in 2009. The start-up will use XenoBase — software developed at the VAI — to analyze cancerous tumors, particularly those that have not responded to conventional therapies, and report back to oncologists about options for drugs that may be more effective based on the genetic analysis.

The fledgling firm employs 10 people at its southeast Grand Rapids office, McCurren said.

Because Callahan is director of business development at the VAI, Intervention Insight’s contract to license XenoBase was negotiated through third parties to avoid self-dealing, he said.

“We use the software and we align the public literature, public drug knowledge, with the patient’s molecular information,” Callahan said. “Then we give that list to physicians to consider along with all their other information for looking at potential drug candidates for the patient,” Callahan said.

Currently, doctors using tumor analysis look for one or two genes to identify the type of tumor and the drug that might work, he said. Typically, the patient would have gone through the standard protocol of drugs with little benefit before turning to the analysis provided by Intervention Insights.

“We’re not just looking at one gene, or two. We’re looking at 22,000 all at the same time — the entire genome in your tumor — for purposes of helping your doctor sift through drugs for you,” Callahan said.

Intervention Insights uses publicly available research literature to consider which drugs best fit a tumor and provides that background to the doctor, he said. 

For example, in one instance, the analysis of a pancreatic tumor uncovered strong evidence of a gene typically assessed for breast cancer, and the doctor decided to try a breast cancer drug to treat it, he said.

Intervention Insights is working with doctors’ practices in Texas and Indiana and with Cancer & Hematology Centers of Western Michigan based in Grand Rapids. The target market is independent oncologists who are not associated with academic health centers, Callahan said.

Two clinical trials are underway, one a registry with 100 patients and the other using Intervention Insight’s service as a guide for picking drugs to treat neuroblastoma in children.

He said he believes approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration is unnecessary.

“We believe we’re an information service,” Callahan said. “We’re not diagnostics. We’re not prognosis disease. We’re not suggesting that a drug will or won’t work. We’re just aligning public information along with the molecular attributes.”

The service costs $3,950, which must be paid by the patient because no insurance companies offer coverage at this time, he added. It must be ordered by a physician and the results go back to the physician.

The VAI already has licensed XenoBase to 20 organizations on three continents for quickly analyzing large amounts of molecular, clinical and demographic data to find patterns and trends, Callahan said. It now is partly owned by XB TransMed Solutions LLC, he added, which is marketing it in a software package.

McCurren said he has worked with several start-up companies in the health care and biotech fields during the 26 years that he and his wife, Grand Valley State University Kirkhof College of Nursing Dean Cynthia McCurren, lived in Louisville, Ky. He was searching for a new opportunity in West Michigan.

“Typically when I go in, I go in as a part-investor and as a member of the team,” he said. “When I saw this opportunity and looked at it carefully, I saw one of the best business plans that I’d seen developed. I saw 10 years of research that was done at the Van Andel behind it, an exclusive license agreement, an opportunity to do some good work, and the opportunity to come in on the ground floor at an early start-up company that’s got a lot of potential.”

Now the challenge is to bring the tumor analysis service to markets outside West Michigan, McCurren said. “What is it going to take to get the oncologists to believe in this product like the Grand Rapids oncologists believe? It’s the sales process, but it’s also the support process.”

Callahan said the timing is right for Intervention Insights.

“We didn’t have an outside group that had approached us. The market of opportunity is closing pretty quick here in personalized medicine because this is a high-growth field,” Callahan said. “And more importantly, we need to affect human health. I really do believe that this is one of those things that’s going to put West Michigan on the map of leading the molecular basis of disease.”

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