Raising more than $34 million to commercialize this service
Did you know that cancer of the ovary, which ranks 5th among females in the Philippines, is the most lethal gynecologic cancer?
One of the reasons why ovarian cancer is very deadly is because some of its late-stage symptoms like bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, weight loss, frequent urination, constipation, among others can very easily be mistaken for non-threatening conditions. What’s also alarming is, it’s usually asymptomatic in its early stages. Thus, it is often called a silent killer.
But soon, it will be silent no more because InterVenn Biosciences, a medical research and biotech company based in San Francisco, California, USA, is facilitating a study designed to validate a blood test that aims to help physicians diagnose accurately whether a pelvic tumor is malignant or benign, which eventually could lead to treating ovarian cancer properly. Coined as VOCAL (InterVenn Ovarian CAncer Liquid Biopsy), this diagnostic tool is now in its final testing stage and could be available for clinical use early next year.
It is an important move in the fight against ovarian cancer, which is commonly being detected in the advanced stage where patients have already less chance of surviving. Contrary to being diagnosed at an early stage, where patients’ survival rate can shoot up to 90 percent.
InterVenn has already raised $34 million or roughly P1.64 billion in a Series B of fundraising that will be used to further develop its platform for precision medicine and to commercialize the said diagnostic for ovarian cancer.
In 2018, InterVenn also received an institutional investment of $9.4 million (P452 million) from Genoa Ventures, with participation from True Ventures, Amplify Partners, Boost VC, and Prado SV. The latest investement was led by Anzu Partners with full participation of seasoned biotech investor Genoa Ventures, Amplify Partners, and True Ventures with Xeraya Capital and Ojjeh Family. In total InterVenn received funds more than P2 billion.
This medical breakthrough is something we Filipinos should be proud of, because two of its creators, Aldo Carrascoso and Dr. Carlito Lebrilla Ph.D, are Filipinos. Both are founders of InterVenn. The Psychology graduate of the Ateneo De Manila University and serial entrepreneur, Carrascoso is the current CEO of the three-year old company, while Lebrilla, a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a distinguished professor at University of California Davis, is one of the members of the advisory board.
Their path crossed in 2016 after Aldo’s close relative was diagnosed with breast cancer, following his mother who succumbed to the same illness in the 1990s. In search of reasons why genomic sequencing wasn’t able to help his family, Aldo found himself undergoing a blood test in Lebrilla’s lab in Davis, where he also met the chemist professor and their co-founder Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi.
For decades, Lebrilla and Bertozzi have been using glycoproteomics, in simplest terms, it looks into the glycoproteins (sugars that are attached to proteins) in our bodies and analyses their modification.
The extensive data on Carrascoso’s blood, including glycoproteins, was analyzed by a group of postdocs after being generated by a machine called mass spectrometer. Since the analytical chemists needed to read the graph hundred thousand times, he was told to come back after 12 months to know the result.
In complete disbelief, Carrascoso, a self-confessed solution seeker, had an idea to come up with a software to supercharge the in-depth process. “I raised funds to create a large training set where we used to do the world’s first long-short term artificial intelligence, essentially for mass spectra analysis. That’s why the 12 months was down to 12 minutes and in time 12 seconds,” beamed Aldo.
From then on, they were determined to utilize mass spectrometry and artificial intelligence to be able to diagnose cancer such as prostate, liver, kidney, and others at its earliest stage, eventually leading to further research for the Big C’s cure.
In February this year, Aldo’s cousin also died from cancer. “So InterVenn is a calling,” he expressed. “This is not a business for me. I cannot fail this. This is my responsibility. So, everyone that joins us is in the same wave.”
InterVenn already has a full team in Ortigas Pasig that does development operations and server systems administration. “And we’re building even larger non-software teams here. I’m just proud that the technology is from Pinoys. I am very proud of that, and I’m very proud that the solution is also from a Pinoy (referring to Phil-Am Dr. Lebrilla),” said Aldo.
Born from Filipinos’ ingenuity, VOCAL is currently undergoing clinical trials here in the Philippine General Hospital, National Kidney and Transplant Institute, and The Medical City. And interested patients can enroll in the program by visiting www.vocal.ph. According to InterVenn, the risks to participation are very small since the study involves a simple blood draw. Moreover, participating will benefit the development of the research to fight cancer.