2017 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Technology
Revolutionary Screening Test Prevents Deadly Colon Cancer With Improved Precursor Detection
Stage 4 colon cancer has a survival rate of only about 15 per cent.
However, this highly serious medical problem is almost entirely preventable. Colon cancer originates from tiny growth is the bowel called polyps. These small growths are benign until they reach about two centimetres in size, which doctors believe takes five to 10 years. This is generally enough time to detect the polyps and have them removed.
Metabolomic Technologies Inc. (MTI) is a spin-off company from the University of Alberta that has taken on the challenge of preventing colon cancer before it develops. While the polyp precursors to colon cancer are easily identified through a colonoscopy or stool sample test, the biggest barrier is compliance.
Identifying the problem
To address this issue, Dr. Richard Fedorak and his colleagues set up the Colon Cancer Screening Program in the early 2000s. Fedorak is a Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta and President and Chief Medical Officer of MTI. In the early program, the screening test of choice was a fecal sample.
Fedorak explains, “There’s a lot of yuck factor around a fecal sample. People don’t like to collect it and we quickly learned that only about 14 percent of the males who should be doing a fecal sample ever got it done. Females were a little better at 25 or 30 percent.”
Seeing the poor compliance for a critically important screening test, Fedorak began researching a way for a urine test to provide the same level of colon cancer precursor detection.
As both a leading research centre in the study of metabolites and machine learning, the University of Alberta became the site for the discovery of a new screening test. This research became the focus for the Masters project of Dr. Haili Wang, now a colorectal surgeon and Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta Hospital and Vice-President. Wang is also Chief Scientific Officer of MTI.
The initiative had patients provide both urine and stool samples and undergo a colonoscopy. By working backwards, the researchers found markers in the urine that would indicate the presence of polyps.
The final result of the project was a clinically validated test that led to the creation of MTI as a spin-off company from the University of Alberta.
A better way forward
The test, called PolypDx, detects the presence of certain metabolites in the urine. Metabolites are molecules created from chemical reactions in the body. The presence of polyps forms a certain type of these small molecules, which are then filtered out through the kidneys into the urine and can be detected by the test.
Dr. David Chang, CEO of MTI, explains, “That’s where we’re picking up these metabolites and using machine learning to predict whether someone has these polyps which are precursors to colon cancer.”
Wang adds by detecting the polyps early, “we can prevent these patients from needing surgery or needing additional chemotherapy or radiation treatment.”
The impact of PolypDx has been beneficial and encouraging. Fedorak says that because they moved to the urine test, they are seeing over 90 percent compliance rates in both genders.
Chang adds, “For MTI, and myself personally, we really believe in the test and the value it brings to the patients.”
With the success of the test, the challenge now for MTI is to commercialize PolypDx and make the product as widely available as possible. Now they need to educate patients and doctors about the test so that the health care system can adopt the product on a population-basis as opposed to an individual-basis.
As MTI looks to commercialize the product and bring it to the U.S. market, they have seen a growing interest. Chang says, “We started doing press releases and we got a lot of calls from the public and from patients. We actually just got a call from a person in New Jersey who asked, ‘how do I get this test?’”
Chang adds, “There are people who want to take control of their own screening and want to screen themselves and they’re reaching out to us. And we’re working through the healthcare system to try to get that information out there to provide this technology and this level of testing for patients.”
With really strong support for Alberta Health Services, DynaLIFE, Alberta Innovates, TEC Edmonton and especially with research from the University of Alberta, Metabolomic Technologies Inc. and their revolutionary screening test are truly made-in-Alberta innovations.