Juliet Preston / MedCityNews
Epic Sciences has to be one of the coolest kids on the biopharma block, with a new $40 million Series D financing round, a whopping 42 industry partnerships and over 200 clinical trials in the works, all built around its novel liquid biopsy platform. For a team of just 70, the San Diego, California startup is doing pretty well.
Announced Thursday, the Series D was led by Hermed Capital with back-up from a diverse syndicate of investors, including Altos Capital Partners, Domain Associates, Genomic Health, Pagoda Investment, Reach Tone Limited, RMI Partners, Sabby Capital, and VI Ventures. Epic has now raised $85.5 million in equity financing since it spun out of the Scripps Research Institute in mid-2008.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Epic is a liquid biopsy company that generates diagnostic information by screening a patient’s blood. It’s a high buzz field, with companies ranging from Freenome to Thermo Fisher Scientific to Guardant Health all advancing different products for research or clinical use. The difference, according to Epic CEO and President Murali Prahalad, is what his company is looking for and what it can do with the results.
Instead of detecting or diagnosing the disease, Epic is working on predictive tests that can help inform treatment decisions as a patient’s cancer progresses.
“What we want to do is provide physicians with very clear and actionable data that’ll help them decide which drug or drug combinations will actually work for an individual patient,” Prahalad said in a phone interview.
That’s not static information. Over the course of the disease, cancers often develop resistance to previously targeted therapies. From a 10ml sample, Epic can track genetic and molecular changes to determine if a drug is losing efficacy.
According to Prahalad, the company has four tests in the works that operate on this principle. The first is the OncotypeDx AR-V7 Nucleus Detect test for metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer. It’s scheduled to launch later this year in collaboration with Genomic Health.
“The test will tell a urologist or an oncologist with 100 percent certainty when their patient will no longer respond to targeted hormonal therapies and must be switched to a chemotherapy,” Prahalad stated (there are peer-reviewed papers that go into specifics).
So what magical biomarker is Epic finding in the blood?
Many of Epic’s competitors screen for cell-free DNA (cfDNA) — tiny fragments of tumor DNA that slough off into the blood stream when the cell breaks down. That approach could hold potential for many applications, such as early cancer detection. However, it’s problematic when testing for mutations that confer resistance to a drug, Prahalad explained.
“We look primarily at circulating tumor cells or rare immune cell populations and that’s an important distinction,” Prahalad said. “If you think about cell-free DNA, this is something that is shed into the bloodstream when cells are dying. The challenge we have is that sometimes resistant cells in cancer may not be dying as a function of either the immune system or as a function of the drugs that we give them.”
Each test looks at different biomarkers depending on the pharma partner, the drug, and the disease of interest. What’s interesting is that some of the companion tests funded by pharma will actually reduce the market for those drugs. With the prostate cancer test, Epic hopes to identify patients that are no longer responding to an expensive therapy. It’s an ethical no-brainer and it will all-but guarantee payer reimbursement for the test. Yet it also means fewer sales for the drug manufacturer.
Prahalad said the companies that he works with have all been very positive. Medicine is moving more and more towards value-based care. If a subset of patients isn’t responding, it’s in the companies’ best interest to get them off the drug. Then the overall efficacy looks better. That, in turn, can justify higher pricing to offset the reduced sales volume.
More isn’t always better.
It’s a brave new world for diagnostics, biopharma, and medicine, with immense potential to expand. And right in the middle of everything is the epically popular San Diego startup.
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