By AJ Cheline
Recent UC Davis graduate and cancer survivor Angela Courtney has developed a simple, affordable and low-risk test to detect breast cancer. With a little help from the Big Bang! Business Competition, she launched a startup based on the technology.
“I wouldn’t say that I have always thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but I have always considered myself a problem solver,” says Angela Courtney, who recently received her Ph.D. in integrative pathobiology from UC Davis. “For me, it is a way of navigating life based on a simple equation.”
While most researchers are, by nature, problem solvers, not all can take those discoveries and translate them into innovative solutions. Some may say the difference lies in experiences, education or passion. In Courtney’s case, all three are true, but what may be more important is that the problem became personal to her.
For me, it is a way of navigating life based on a simple equation.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after starting my Ph.D. program, and it immediately became clear what my research focus should be,” says Courtney, as if the plan was simply handed to her. “Of course this was a very difficult time for me, but the best way for me to cope with it was to look at it as a problem in need of a solution.” Not only was it a problem for her, but three other members of her family received a similar diagnosis within that same year.
Breast cancer is obviously not an easy problem to solve, so like any entrepreneur, Courtney looked for the gaps and opportunities to determine her path forward. She understood that her research efforts might not help her, but could potentially affect the millions of women diagnosed every year around the world. The American Cancer Society reports that breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer among American women, following skin cancers. About one in eight women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. Like many other women, Courtney was frustrated by the lack of a simple but effective test to diagnose breast cancer in the early stages, when the chances of recovery are greatest. This frustration has since increased with women around the country due to recent change in breast cancer screening guidelines by the American Cancer Society. Traditionally, mammograms have been used to detect breast cancers as part of a regular screening, but mammograms aren’t perfect, and they do have risks. The screening guidelines try to balance these risks, such as radiation exposure, against the potential benefits. One of the risks that influenced the recent guidelines change was problem of false positive results from screening that can lead to unnecessary tests and biopsies.
the best way for me to cope with [being diagnosed with Breast cancer] was to look at it as a problem in need of a solution.
Determined to find a better way that would allow women to detect breast cancer earlier and without the risks and cost of mammograms, Courtney focused on leveraging the body’s natural filtration system. The result was the identification of a pattern of protein and genomic material present in urine that could be used to indicate the presence of breast cancer.
“Urine is essentially filtered plasma from which the kidneys have extracted harmful biological materials and waste,” says Courtney. “We take advantage of this natural process and look for the protein and genomic material that is excreted.”
Together with Michael Gilson, a UC Davis alumnus, she founded Adrastia Biotech and began work to develop a commercial platform for a simple urine test that could distinguish a patient with breast cancer from one without. To make the distinction, the test uses protein and RNA genomic targets that are present in urine. In addition to the comparison to a standard positive or negative pattern, over time the woman’s own individual pattern could serve as her personal control —delivering truly personalized medicine.
How it works
Adrastia’s test runs high throughput protein quantification and targeted mRNA/microRNA sequencing on a urine sample.
Identify a pattern of breast cancer positive or negative as compared to a standard or the woman’s own previous pattern.
Unlike 100 percent genomic data, the test results are designed to be actionable by the woman’s physician, and her pattern will be stored in her health record for future reference.
“The goal is not to replace mammography, but to provide an inexpensive method without the risks of radiation that can be used more regularly to detect breast cancer in the early stages,” says Gilson. In addition, it may offer particular advantages to women with dense breasts, whose mammograms are inconclusive, as well as an alternative for women at high risk who are considering a double mastectomy.
Adrastia is designing their test with the intent that it could be used as part of routine screenings in physicians’ offices, women’s health centers and even remote villages around the world.
While at UC Davis, Courtney filed several patents through the university’s Office of Research leading up to her latest venture. She was introduced to Gilson in 2014 during the Big Bang! Business Competition, sponsored by the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. As part of the competition, each entrepreneur is assigned an experienced mentor to help them develop their business plan. Gilson, a seasoned business professional with an extensive career in the aerospace and defense industries, was paired with Courtney.
“Little did I know I was going to be paired up with someone working to solve such a challenging problem like breast cancer,” says Gilson. “I immediately saw the potential for the product, not only because of the need for it, but also because of the passion, commitment and knowledge that Angela brought.”
I immediately saw the potential for the product, not only because of the need for it, but also because of the passion, commitment and knowledge that Angela brought.
Helping aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs build the right network is a cornerstone of UC Davis’ annual business competition. “Big Bang! was critical for bringing Angela and Mike together to move the venture forward,” says Andrew Hargadon, Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School of Management and founder and faculty director of the Child Family Institute.
“Building connections between university researchers and experienced entrepreneurs and investors plays a central role in turning that research into real solutions. The power of these networks is both a key lesson and a priority for programs like Big Bang! and our entrepreneurship academies.”
The team was awarded the UC Davis Blum Center Prize for Big Ideas Promoting Social Change as part of the 2014 Big Bang! competition. Gilson was so impressed with the concept as well as with Courtney, that he continued to work with her to found Adrastia in 2015.
Adrastia was recently a semi-finalist in the University of California Prime Competition, which provides financial awards to help fuel startup companies coming out of the UC system, and in April 2016 was named one of eight health tech startup teams to participate in the Google for Entrepreneurs Nashville Exchange program, a weeklong immersion that bridges the gap between startups, experts and new markets.
In partnership with both U.S. and European companies, Adrastia is today focused on developing its clinical laboratory test pathway to commercialization and its portable implementation of the test for use in remote villages to ensure the test saves lives of women globally.
And Courtney is happy to report that she is cancer-free, along with her three other family members. “I am very grateful for the other problem solvers and entrepreneurs around the world who made that possible,” she says.
About the Author: AJ Cheline
AJ Cheline is the Director of Marketing and Communications, UC Davis Office of Research.