Magdalena Staniszewska and Marcin Staniszewski have invented a potentially revolutionary device to detect breast cancer. But the idea didn’t start with breast cancer at all. It started with the eye … and NASA.
Magdalena, an immunochemist by training and a cell biologist by passion, was working at the prestigious Pierce Lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston in 2012, researching ocular diseases. Marcin had recently graduated from Akron University in Ohio with a master’s degree in engineering. He was collaborating with NASA on a project using new composite materials for spacecraft engines, and he got interested in the possible applications of fibre optic technologies in space.
Dinnertime discussions focused on science. The couple came up with the idea of using photonics to detect the presence of markers for various diseases in the body without having to remove cells or tissue. Instead, fibre optics could be used to measure disease markers, such as those floating around a tumour, inside the body in real time.
“That was how we developed the idea of making a novel diagnostic tool for measuring something in real, living tissue,” Magdalena Staniszewska recalls.
In 2013, the couple founded SDS Optic and moved back to their native Poland. The original plan was to focus on ocular diseases, but the couple quickly pivoted to breast cancer.
“Cancer caught our attention because there was a great need,” says Staniszewska, chief science officer at the company. Cases were rising globally, even among young women. “It was really frightening, and for me, obviously, it was close to my heart.”
SDS Optic has spent the last decade developing a diagnostic tool, inPROBE. Inserted into the body, in less than an hour it detects the presence of an aggressive type of breast cancer called HER2 positive. That compares to the days or weeks women wait for the results of a traditional biopsy. HER2 stands for epidermal growth factor receptor 2, a protein that helps cancer spread rapidly. Early diagnosis improves the success of recently developed treatments for HER2 cancer.
Breast cancer is the number one cancer among women, with roughly 2 million cases diagnosed and more than 650 000 deaths each year, says Rebecca Verdin-Pol, an investment officer in the European Investment Bank’s life science and biotech unit. The European Investment Bank is providing SDS Optic with €10 million in venture debt financing, backed by an InvestEU guarantee.
“Being able to diagnose in real time with very high accuracy is really game changing,” Verdin-Pol says.
Diagnosing cancer without a biopsy
In a traditional biopsy, a sample of tissue or cells is removed and sent to a diagnostics lab to determine whether cancer is present and, if so, what type. Results can take as long as several weeks, depending on the availability of a pathologist. Traditional biopsies come with another risk. The process of removing the cancerous tissue or cells can inadvertently spread those cells to another part of the body.
The inPROBE device works differently:
- The nano-size fibre sensor is contained in a very thin needle, and the probe is inserted in the body near the tumour or potentially cancerous cells. The hair-thin sensor measures the presence of a biomarker, which makes the process safer – and much less painful and less invasive than a traditional biopsy.
- Data gathered by the probe is transferred via fibre optics to a diagnostic device that determines whether cancer is present by the levels of certain markers, such as the HER2 protein.
- During cancer treatment, inPROBE can let doctors know if therapies to treat HER2 cancer, like a monoclonal antibody called Trastuzumab, are working based on the biomarker’s presence in the body.
Tom Andersen, a principal advisor in the European Investment Bank’s life sciences and health division, says that InPROBE’s approach of detecting cancer directly in the body is a significant improvement over traditional biopsies, whose results are wrong up to 40% of the time. The device’s speed and accuracy, combined with the minimally invasive procedure, will be ground-breaking, he says.
“If you start poking, you irritate the cancer tumour,” he says. “You avoid that with this novel technology, which is great progress.”