Former Foundation Medicine president and COO Steven Kafka, Ph.D., has joined with current and former colleagues to launch a cancer liquid biopsy developer focused on detecting multiple cancers at earlier stages, with $110 million in Series A financing—the largest-ever investment by a licensee of a technology developed at Johns Hopkins University.
Thrive Earlier Detection plans to develop and commercialize CancerSEEK, a DNA- and protein-based liquid biopsy. Three researchers based at Johns Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center developed the test, and have joined Kafka and his past and present colleagues in co-founding the company, and serving as directors and/or executives.
Many of those co-founders were disclosed last month. Thrive filed incorporation papers on April 22, registering the company with the Corporations Division of the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts William Francis Galvin.
CancerSEEK is designed to detect cancer by analyzing eight tumor specific genomic mutations in circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) and cancer-associated protein biomarkers in plasma to identify abnormalities that are common across multiple cancers.
Alongside the CancerSEEK technology, Johns Hopkins said, it also has licensed to Thrive a foundational DNA sequencing technology, Safe-SeqS, and a suite of supporting biomarker technologies.
In a study published last year in Science, CancerSEEK showed greater than 99% specificity, with only 7 of 812 healthy controls scoring positive for cancer. The liquid biopsy also detected cancer with sensitivity between of 33% (breast cancers) to 98% (ovarian cancers) depending on which of eight cancer types was studied (breast, colorectum, esophagus, liver, lung, ovary, pancreas, and stomach).
Five of the cancers studied—ovary, liver, stomach, pancreas, and esophagus—have no screening tests available for average-risk individuals. The study assessed 1000 patients previously diagnosed with cancer and 850 healthy control individuals.
At present, CancerSEEK is being evaluated in DETECT, a prospective study in which researchers from Johns Hopkins and Geisinger Heath are assessing the liquid biopsy in
10,000 healthy women ages 65-75, with the goal of better understanding the test’s performance and implementing its findings into patient care.
Thrive said it intends to conduct additional clinical studies to support regulatory approvals, inclusion in cancer screening guidelines and broad reimbursement.
Over time, Thrive intends to draw upon demographic and phenotypic information, historical clinical data, radiology and pathology imaging, behavioral data, information from retrospective clinical studies of relevant cohorts, and other sources.
By integrating real-world data and machine learning, the company reasons, it can fulfill its commitment to continue improving CancerSEEK over time, and create a cost-effective comprehensive care solution for primary care physicians that expands the number of people who can benefit from earlier cancer screening over time.
CancerSEEK has received the FDA’s Breakthrough Device designation for the detection of genetic mutations and proteins associated with pancreatic and ovarian cancers.
CancerSEEK was developed in the lab of Bert Vogelstein, MD, the first scientist to elucidate the molecular basis of a common human cancer—specifically by showing that colorectal tumors result from the gradual accumulation of genetic alterations in specific oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes.
Vogelstein is co-director of the Ludwig Institute, and Clayton Professor of oncology and pathology, at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center (SKCCC) at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Cancer “Often Can Be Cured”
“We envision a future where routine preventive care includes a blood test for cancer, just as patients are now routinely tested for early stages of heart disease,” Vogelstein said in a statement. “Such testing does not have to be a scary, expensive, or complicated process. We know that if cancer is caught early enough, it often can be cured.”
Vogelstein developed CancerSEEK with two Johns Hopkins colleagues—Kenneth W. Kinzler, PhD, and Nickolas Papadopoulos, PhD. Kinzler is co-director of the Ludwig Institute at Johns Hopkins, associate director for laboratory research for the SKCCC, and a professor of oncology. Papadopoulos is a professor of oncology and pathology at the SKCCC.
“With the help of experts and strategic partners, Thrive is launching today to advance a novel test for the earlier detection of multiple cancers, which we aim to augment with an integrated service that helps patients maneuver the often confusing path that follows a cancer diagnosis,” Thrive CEO Steven J. Kafka, PhD, said in a statement.
Kafka is a partner at Third Rock Ventures, which led the $110 million Series A financing, with participation from investors that included cancer diagnostic developer Exact Sciences, and BlueCross BlueShield Venture Partners, the corporate venture arm to which thirty-three BCBS entities have committed over $575 million across three Funds.
Additional investors in the Series A included Section 32, Casdin Capital, Biomatics Capital, Invus, Cowin Venture, Camden Partners, Gamma 3, and others.
Kafka joined Third Rock in August 2018 as a venture partner, bringing more than 20 years of experience in molecular diagnostics as well as in drug discovery, development and commercialization.
Before joining Third Rock Ventures, Kafka previously served at Foundation Medicine, a provider of genomic profile products and data services which he joined in 2013 as chief business officer, and was promoted to president and COO in February 2017. He resigned from Foundation Medicine effective February 16, 2018, after just a year in the job.
Kafka was president and COO under Troy Cox, who served as CEO for two years starting in February 2017. Effective February 4, Cox was succeeded by Cindy Perettie, who was previously senior vice president for global oncology product strategy at Roche Oncology.
Roche acquired full ownership of Foundation Medicine last year for $2.4 billion, expanding on its majority stake. The deal signaled the pharma giant’s growing interest in personalized oncology treatments as well as diagnostics.
Joining Kafka as executives of Thrive are:
- Christoph Lengauer, PhD, another Third Rock partner and a former CSO at Blueprint Medicines. He is a Thrive co-founder and the company’s chief innovation officer.
- Isaac Ro, former vice president and lead medical technology analyst at Goldman Sachs, who will serve as CFO.
- Isaac Kinde, MD, PhD, co-inventor of the technology enabling CancerSEEK, as co-founder and head of research and innovation.
- Geoff Otto, Ph.D., former vice president of product development at Foundation Medicine, as senior vice president and head of product development.
- Samantha Singer, entrepreneur-in-residence at Third Rock Ventures, former chief operating officer at the Broad Institute, as chief operating officer.
- Semi Trotto, former head of human resources at Editas Medicines, as senior vice president and head of human resources.
- Dina Ciarimboli, general counsel at Third Rock Ventures, as general counsel.
Kafka, Kinzler, Legnauer, and Papadopoulos will also serve as directors of Thrive, along with Alexis Borisy, co-founder and former chairman of Foundation Medicine; and Michael Pellini, MD, managing partner at Section 32 and former chairman and CEO at Foundation Medicine.
“We envision a future where routine preventative care includes a blood test for cancer, just as patients are now routinely tested for early stages of heart disease,” Langauer stated. “We know that if cancer is caught early enough, it can often be cured.”