Cancer detection and treatment growing in St. Paul lab could be 'breakthrough'

A breakthrough in cancer detection and treatment is growing out of a St. Paul lab.

They’re teaming up with University of Minnesota professors to make cancer medicine faster, easier, and cheaper with a groundbreaking three-dimensional approach.

Jiarong Hong may be looking at the future of cancer detection and treatment.

"These are the images actually captured by our imaging system," says the mechanical engineering Ph.D. who is a University of Minnesota professor and chief technology officer at Astrin Biosciences. "You can see these are cells selected to be like cancer cells or cancer cell candidates, and so we extract them from the blood cells."

Astrin starts with a 20 mL sample of blood, runs it through a tiny channel in a slide, and conducts holographic imaging.

The three-dimensional model is rich with information and artificial intelligence uses it to detect those possible cancer cells.

Oncologists say it can identify cancer before a patient shows up with tumors.

It’s an especially useful tool for people who are more inclined to end up in a cancer battle.

"This has been sort of the Holy Grail we’ve been searching for," said Dr. Badrinath Konety, an oncologist at Alina Health and chief medical officer at Astrin.

"It really allows us to constantly monitor patients. We can repeatedly sample the blood. So if today you don’t have something you may be able to check it again three months from now. But I can’t keep biopsying patients every three months."

Astrin’s chief science officer, Justin Drake, says the technology can also help customize treatment for cancer patients.

It can identify specific cancer proteins, so you might avoid a highly effective but highly toxic treatment like chemotherapy.

"The idea is if we can find these particular proteins that are important for driving the biology, more looking at the function of what’s going on in that cell, then we can find the right therapy for the right patient," said Drake, also a Ph.D. and an assistant professor at the U of M.

Drake says it could also help the focus for clinical studies into new treatments, making sure they’re targeting the right proteins in the right cancer patients.

Most of the company’s leadership team is associated with the University of Minnesota and Hong’s three-dimensional work started in a lab there where he analyzed snowflakes and bacteria.

Astrin CEO Jayant Parthasarathy says the progression to this innovation wasn’t always smooth.

"Not every day goes perfect," he said. "There’s a whole room over there of things that didn’t work. What you’re seeing here is the one thing that did."

The promise of this technology goes beyond even what Elizabeth Holmes illegitimately sold at Theranos.

Parthasarathy acknowledges what happened at Theranos caused a lot of people to question any groundbreaking science.

But he says their scientific pursuit isn’t about being rich and famous.

They’ve all had brushes with cancer in their families, so the mission to fight back is personal.

The technology should be in several academic studies within six months, then they’re hoping to get FDA approval, and in widespread use for cancer detection and treatment within a couple years.