It’s a biomedical technology that’s nearly 20 years in the making.
Today, Calgary-based life-sciences technology company Syantra is helping women identify breast cancer with a simple blood test. It’s particularly important for underserved groups of women that don’t fall into the current mammography standard of care. The test is improving diagnostic accessibility that could lead to life-saving treatment.
Back in the early 2000s, Dr. Tina Rinker, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Calgary, was studying how immune cells bounce around in blood vessels and what causes them to stick.
“I developed ways to be able to mimic disease in the lab using human cells,” she said.
“That’s one of the things that’s really missing in our drug discovery platforms, because a lot of the drugs traditionally are developed using molecules and cells in a dish.
Rinker said the problem with that is that’s not the experienced environment in the body.
She continued to develop that process to better mimic what’s going on in the body. Those discovery platforms were then used in collaboration with a group in Korea in 2011/12.
“They wanted new biomarkers. We said, ‘well, our discovery platform should be good for this kind of thing,’” Rinker said.
The then-Alberta Ministry of Economic Development funded a project that was focused on commercialization and the development of a test. They first tested a solid tumour. It was a needle stick where the subtype of the breast cancer could be determined within a day.
Going the pathology (looking at the human tissues) route, however, was a longer process.
“We moved pretty quickly to the blood test,” Rinker said.
“We said, ‘well, if we can find it in the blood, that would be the best way.’”
Syantra was formed
In 2016, Syantra spun off as a separate entity from the University of Calgary to continue the commercialization process. An initial angel investment helped them move the development along, including finding their own service lab located in the northwest community of Royal Oak.
Last year, they received their CPSA certification from the College and Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. This opens them up to audit of quality management, but in doing so opens up market access across Canada.
The test itself measures a panel of gene expression biomarkers in whole blood. From there, a machine learning software interprets the data to provide the result.
“We turned it into a test that’s robust and easy to use, easy to scale to other laboratories to run the test reproducibly and achieve the same results,” Rinker said.
The current standard of care begins with the mammogram, perhaps a second diagnostic mammogram and then pathology (tissue test). That process takes a while, Rinker said.
“The Syantra blood test can help make that process more efficient,” Rinker said.
“It provides a supplemental tool for those that are being underserved by the current standard of care.”
She said women with dense breast tissue and younger women who aren’t yet recommended for screening, along with those that aren’t getting screened for physical or other reasons are who this test could impact.
Overall, the accuracy of the test is 92 per cent for women between 25 and 80.
Right now, the test costs $499, but not yet covered by Alberta Health Care. The cost would have to be covered by private providers or through health spending accounts.
Breast cancer awareness
Rinker said highlighting that 18 per cent of breast cancers happen in younger women, is part of this year’s October Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“It’s less frequent in women under 50, but it does occur, and it can be more aggressive – you need to be vigilant with that,” she said.
The Calgary-made biotech is another tool in the fight against breast cancer. It’s typically physician-prescribed as a part of the continuum of care for patients.
“We need to continue to push the envelope. We need to continue to improve the standards of care and develop technologies and continue the validation and the implementation processes that are long in medicine to advance those technologies,” Rinker said.
“We have an issue, especially in regard to improving access to underserved populations, catching those breast cancers at an earlier stage where they’re more treatable.”