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Epic Brings New Tools to Cancer Detection

EPIC SCIENCES

CEO: David Nelson.

Revenue: Not disclosed.

No. of local employees: 25.

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Investors: Domain Associates, Roche Venture Fund, Pfizer Venture Investments, and others.

Headquarters: Torrey Pines Mesa.

Year founded: 2008.

Company description: Epic is developing highly sensitive diagnostic tests that reveal circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in the blood to provide a better and faster way to detect cancer and to monitor and personalize cancer treatments.

Key factors for success: Breakthrough science and technology for an important medical need; collaborative pharma partnerships that have advanced the technology into clinical trials; having the support of experienced investors.

Even in a challenging economic climate, San Diego startup Epic Sciences has been able to access private, venture capital and government financing to advance its work in developing diagnostics that could be used to detect and guide treatments for many types of cancer.

In Epic’s latest announcement in mid-November, the company said it raised $13 million in a Series B round of financing, which includes investors Domain Associates, Roche Venture Fund, and Pfizer Venture Investments in addition to undisclosed individual investors.

This follows a $1 million Small Business Innovation Research grant awarded by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in September, and an undisclosed Series A round in March 2011.

Epic Sciences CEO David Nelson said the company has been funded by a number of government grants since forming in 2008 around technology developed by cell biologist Peter Kuhn of The Scripps Research Institute.

“In this era of difficult financing with venture capital shrinking it’s been important to tap into and leverage different financing,” Nelson said.

Epic Sciences was spun out of a networking group for young biotech executives in San Diego called SHOUT. The group, organized by Nelson and Kuhn, brought next-generation biotech executives together for eight years before disbanding as its members graduated to full-fledged leadership status. Kuhn eventually approached Nelson with the idea of forming Epic Sciences and operated virtually out of The Scripps Research Institute for two years before formally starting operations in October 2010.

The growing company since moved up from a 3,000-square-foot space on General Atomics Court in March to an 8,500-square-foot space on North Torrey Pines Road where it can not only stay connected with UC San Diego and other biotech companies in Torrey Pines but also maintain close proximity to Kuhn’s lab.

With the exclusive license to Kuhn’s technology, Epic’s 25 staff members including full-time employees and significant consultants are expanding on that technology to create a blood test that can detect and profile biomarkers on circulating tumor cells. These CTCs are cells that escape from solid tumors and enter the bloodstream where they travel and eventually cause cancer metastasis.

Nelson said typical cancer diagnostic tests today detect solid cancers by invasive biopsies. Patients undergo surgery and when parts — or all — of a tumor are removed from a patient, they are tested for a variety of biomarkers to determine which drugs would be useful in treatment. But the test is usually performed when the patient is first diagnosed with cancer and cannot be used repeatedly. The company claims these tests are ineffective in understanding metastatic risk, disease progression and treatment effectiveness.

Epic’s method, which is based on examining patterns and shapes of blood cells stained with various colors on a microscope slide and then scanning them for analysis, can be used on various cancer types such as lung, prostate, breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancers that are difficult to perform biopsies on. Nelson said the test helps identify which type of drug will work on a patient currently rather than when the patient was first diagnosed with a tumor. Epic’s diagnostic test aligns with the trend toward personalizing medicine to ensure each patient gets the drug they’ll most benefit from, or as Nelson says, delivering the right drug to the right patient at the right time.

“Certain drugs work at times for a patient but then they stop working,” Nelson said. “The important part is this provides the physician with a window into that patient’s tumor today and then allows them to figure out which drugs to give them.”

Managing the Disease

The ultimate goal is to turn cancer into a chronic manageable disease similar to what’s been done for HIV. Now there are blood tests that can constantly monitor HIV patients and be used to adjust their therapies, Nelson said.

Epic is currently working with seven pharmaceutical partners, among them Genentech Inc., Pfizer Inc., Celgene Corp. and Abbott Laboratories, to create companion diagnostic products for oncology drug candidates. So while the pharmaceuticals develop new cancer drugs, Epic’s diagnostics would be used to identify which patients would benefit from those drugs. The partnerships include a number of Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials being conducted mostly in North America, Europe and Asia, which will ultimately involve more than 1,500 patients. Potential approvals from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for Epic’s diagnostics are still several years away.

“The company already is generating significant revenue through our pharma partnerships so we don’t have to wait for a product to get on the market before we generate revenue,” Nelson said.

For now, Epic Sciences plans to use the recent $13 million in equity financing to advance the clinical trials and prepare the company for commercialization of the diagnostic products.

In conjunction with the financing, Kim Kamdar, a partner of Domain Associates with offices in San Diego and Princeton, N.J., will join Epic’s board of directors.

Kamdar said Domain has been enamored with Epic’s circulating tumor cell technology since the company was in its infancy and Domain contributed a seed investment toward its efforts several years ago. The technology looks promising for understanding and treating cancer and it is hoped that one day the treatment will help manage cancer as a chronic disease to help patients live fuller lives, said Kamdar, a venture investor for nearly a decade who has a Ph.D. in cell biology.

“What is beautiful about this approach is imagine for the first time being able to take a blood sample from a patient and determining if they have cancer or not,” she said. “This is a brand new way to utilize technology to aid in the identification, and downstream, the patient management of cancer.”

Kamdar said that this is an optimal time to be joining the Series B financing round as Epic’s technology has matured to the point that it’s ready to be developed into a commercial companion diagnostic test.

“The Epic team has done a wonderful job of advancing the technology, and Domain felt it was the right time to re-engage with Epic,” she said.

In addition to investing in Epic Sciences, Domain Associates has made investment connections with local diagnostics firms Applied Proteomics Inc., Astute Medical Inc., and Sera Prognostics Inc. of Utah.

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