This is part of a series giving you an insider’s view of the products coming out of Pittsburgh to change the world.
New medicines take years to develop, which means many lives are lost while waiting and millions (or billions) of dollars are spent during each of those long development periods. So when a company comes along that can reduce the time it takes for treatments to reach the market on a wide scale, the potential wins are huge.
Lawrenceville-based Predictive Oncology has been streamlining the way medicines go through the testing and approval process, focusing — as its name suggests — on oncological treatments for cancer patients.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information says the discovery of novel drugs is critical for patient treatment, yet, according to the United States Congressional Budget Office, only 12% of drugs entering clinical trials are approved.
Predictive Oncology’s Chairman and CEO Raymond Vennare, an executive in the biotechnology industry for three decades, recognized that existing techniques to test drugs had both advantages and shortcomings. He saw the potential for improving the processes to produce the speed and accuracy needed to go through medical testing, which often takes years for any drug.
So Predictive Oncology acquired several companies that had promising intellectual property — Pittsburgh-based Helomics in 2019 and Quantitative Medicine in 2020 — to combine them into a unique solution to decrease time to market and costs.
The Helomics acquisition came with a suite of artificial intelligence (AI) tools, a biobank of 150,000 tumor samples, and a library of nearly 200,000 pathology slides, along with a robust database of drug response data, together called PEDAL (Patient-centric Discovery by Active Learning).
With the acquisition of Quantitative Medicine, Predictive Oncology got a novel, computational drug discovery platform, dubbed CORE (Computational Research Engine) that was developed at Carnegie Mellon University.
By combining the large set of samples and slides from Helomics, which Vennare calls the world’s largest, with the AI and the Quantitative Medicine platform — then including a state-of-the-art lab in Lawrenceville — Predictive Oncology claims 92% accuracy during pre-clinical testing in predicting clinical success in the very early stages of drug discovery.
They do it by introducing the “human” element of heterogeneity (different types of people with different types of tumors who respond differently to specific therapies) far earlier in the drug discovery process, essentially looking five years into the future of drug development in advance of clinical trials. They do not eliminate clinical trials, but choose targets that are most likely to succeed in clinical trials.
This process happens in weeks, not years like traditional processes. Vennare says the time savings alone amounts to two to 10 years earlier for a given drug to enter the market for patient use. According to Vennare, this preclinical phase of drug testing has the highest failure rate, and is thus costly to conduct.
It also eliminates expensive clinical trials for drugs that are not likely to be approved. The additional savings of not having to go down the expensive clinical testing path for those that would likely not be approved saves billions in annual research costs for the pharmaceutical companies. The companies can concentrate on the most likely winners and the types of treatments for which they should be tested. The savings theoretically can be passed along to consumers in lower drug prices.
According to Cancer Research UK, there are more than 200 types of cancer, which Vennare says opens a range of treatment opportunities to impact.
Vennare, who lost his father, mother and brother to cancer, points out that there are other gains by being able to use Predictive Oncology’s method in the drug development cycle.
According to Vennare, being able to conduct clinical testing with fewer patients leaves more patients available for other high-value clinical drug trials. Thus it also allows more drugs to be tested effectively with the same number of patients.
This, he says, means that pharmaceutical companies can put their money behind treating more types of cancer too — even those cancers that affect smaller populations.
Currently, drug companies feel forced to apply their R&D dollars to only the most common types so they can make back their investments. The lower cost allows them to broaden their focus.
As an example, he compares the market for pancreatic cancer patients (64,000 annually resulting in 50,000 deaths) to the larger populations for lung cancer (238,000 cases resulting in 127,000 deaths) and breast cancer (240,000 cases and 42,000 deaths annually).
The company has been working closely with the top cancer research institutes and several pharmaceutical companies.
Vennare’s goal is to change the way we, as a society, think of and treat cancer — so it’s more like diabetes, a chronic condition instead of a terminal disease.
Know of a product or service being developed in Pittsburgh or by a Pittsburgh-based company that is cool, is creating growth, or will change the world? Let David know via email.