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Seeking Breakthroughs: The Startup Perspective


A roundtable discussion with Chase Spurlock, PhD, IQuity; Michal Izrael, PhD, Kadimastem Ltd; Kevin Hrusovsky, Quanterix; and J. Michael Ryan, MD, Rodin Therapeutics

Q: What Motivated Founding Your Company?

Kevin Hrusovsky, Quanterix

A: Quanterix was founded in 2007 by Dr. David Walt, who is also scientific founder of Illumina, and based on the discovery of a revolutionary new technique for measuring individual protein molecules that allows measurement of thousands of biomarkers at levels never before possible. This technology breakthrough led to a vision of advancing precision health science, in which biomarker measurements can change the way diseases are detected and treated. Everything we do at Quanterix is in an effort to move our vision forward—turning today’s reactive sick care into tomorrow’s preventative health care. When Quanterix launched our Simoa (single molecule array) technology, many in the industry had turned their interest from proteins to DNA, in part because no significant innovation had taken place in protein detection in many years. While there continues to be great interest in DNA and gene sequencing, protein detection is uniquely powerful because it reveals which genes are actually being expressed. Proteins reflect the way environmental factors affect our DNA. With nearly 70% of diseases being linked to the environment today, proteins are the most accurate variables for understanding a person’s current state of health. Today, Quanterix remains dedicated to advancing precision health by focusing on the protein.

Q: What Potential Breakthroughs Are Most Exciting Now?

Kevin Hrusovsky, Quanterix

A: The World Health Organization estimates that neurologic diseases affect approximately 1 billion people. Many of these diseases lack both viable treatments and noninvasive tests to concretely diagnose the disease in the first place. For this reason, we have a lot of room for improvement. I believe however, the most exciting breakthrough on the horizon lies in our ability to use biomarkers to detect neurologic diseases before symptoms are present and measure efficacy of new treatments especially in the early stages when there are few symptoms.

Research shows biomarkers will remain a critical tool for progressing our understanding of diseases including AD and PD. At the same time, the FDA has acknowledged the role that biomarkers play in advancing the drug development process. This is very much already becoming a reality with the proven link between biomarkers (eg, tau, glial fibrillary acidotic protein [GFAP], ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase L1 [UCH-L1], neurofilament light [NfL], and amyloid-β [Aβ]) and neurologic diseases. Continued research on this front will be essential for improving how we treat these diseases.

We are also exploring ways early detection or diagnosis can help prevent some of these diseases. Research has started to demonstrate the interconnectedness between various disease states. For example, repeated traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and mild TBI (mTBI), also known as concussion, have been linked to development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) later in life. While we are still in the exploratory phases of understanding how these diseases fully intertwine, diagnosing TBIs earlier and more objectively gives us a better chance of preventing CTE and other neurodegenerative disease.

Q: What Breakthroughs Seem Far-out And How Can Those Come To Fruition?

Kevin Hrusovsky, Quanterix

A: At Quanterix, we are on the cutting edge of the latest technological innovations and we take great pride in that. We also feel privileged to be able to use these innovations to change the current health care system.

While it may seem far out now, I believe that in the next several years patients will be able to monitor their health in real-time with even greater precision. I envision a day when patients will be able to go to their primary care doctors and have their baseline biomarker levels taken through a simple blood test to identify changes that could indicate the onset of disease. Even further out, but still in the foreseeable future, we will eventually get to a place where people can get regular biomarker level updates delivered to their smartphones and smartwatches for even faster results. This will likely mean the annual physical will become an antiquated benchmark of health. In return, the doctor-patient relationship will become much more collaborative, precise, and meaningful.

The first step to making this vision a reality is continued innovation and research. While the benefits of real-time biomarker readings are undeniable, many would agree it is more important to be accurate than to be fast. We’ve seen countless examples of companies who have rushed to make their technology consumer facing and have failed. That’s why we are focusing our efforts on growing our research bench to further prove the accuracy of our technology before its potential application at point-of-care. With over 200 peer-reviewed studies to date, we are well on our way to bringing this vision to fruition while ensuring everyone who stands to benefit from this great opportunity trusts in the process.

Q: How Will Your Work Today Change Patient Care Over The Next 20 Years?

Kevin Hrusovsky, Quanterix

A: Patient care today is reactive. It is often only at symptom onset when we act to investigate the problem, only to discover underlying causes or preexisting conditions. This approach represents a lack of knowledge that has plagued our health care system for years. I believe the work we are doing has the power to change this and can transform our approach to patient care from reactive to proactive, giving doctors and patients greater access to the data necessary to understand their true health, in turn catching disease before it can progress.

Moving the approach from diagnosis to prevention will require a fundamental shift in mindset from all stakeholders across the industry. It also hinges on our ability to advance biomarker testing. Fortunately, we’ve already seen evidence of these elements moving forward. A new research framework for AD issued by the NIH and Alzheimer’s Association, for example, recognizes the preclinical stage of AD and centers around a biomarker-based disease continuum. I am encouraged by developments like this, which signal that we have already begun to take steps to alter patient care.

Q: What Is Your Thought Process For Identifying New Targets?

Kevin Hrusovsky, Quanterix

A: As I alluded to before, neurology is perhaps one of the least advanced areas when it comes to therapeutic targets for treatment of these diseases. The process for identifying new therapeutic targets is complex and relies on a wide range of technologies, but where we can play the greatest role is in being able to easily measure the efficacy of drug treatments on those new targets through measurement of blood-based biomarkers, without requiring CSF or subjective measurements of symptoms. In addition, a large part of accelerating change involves greater funding for research in the form of government grants and private dollars. Pharmaceutical companies in particular have a unique opportunity to accelerate the research needed to identify new therapeutic targets. In order to get their buy-in however, we need to continue to focus on presenting evidence of biomarkers’ potential to advance drug development.

Q: What Else Would You Like To Share With Our Readers?

Kevin Hrusovsky, Quanterix

A: Today we have access to some of the most cutting-edge technologies this world has ever seen. Innovation is at an all-time high. Each day I am humbled by all of the advances being made, particularly in neurology. As technology moves forward we must work even harder to ensure our goals and aspirations to change medicine do not supersede what science proves we can do. Look no further than the revelations surrounding Theranos to see how believing so strongly in a mission without defendable evidence can open us all up to skepticism and distrust. We must ensure that as medical and scientific practitioners we set an example by ensuring every breakthrough or advancement is deeply rooted in science.

Furthermore, I want each and every person to understand the critical role that they play in effecting industry change, especially across neurology—among the most widely examined and problematic therapeutic areas in medicine. To do this however, we must make a commitment to challenge the status quo. We must not get discouraged by failed trials, rather see these as opportunities to consider new approaches to antiquated problems. We must follow the research and go where the science leads. We must maintain an open mind and leverage new technology developments that can accelerate the research to end these terrible diseases. Above all, we need to be outspoken and transparent, while fostering collaboration that will catalyze a movement in our approach to neurological diseases and the greater healthcare system.

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