A Fred Hutch Spinoff Is Pioneering a Way to Personalize Cancer Therapy

No two cancers are the same.

February 19, 2018

Leslie Helm

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This article appears in print in the February 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Doctors have found that sequencing the DNA of a patients cancer can help identify which cancer drugs are likely to be effective, helping to avoid multiple treatments. But this approach works only about 10 percent of the time.

SEngine, founded in 2015 as a Fred Hutch spinoff, has figured out a way to increase those odds to 70 percent. Live cancer cells from a patient’s biopsy are sent to SEngine, which, based on the cancers DNA, uses an assay to test 50 to 100 drugs or drug combinations to determine which most effectively kill the cancer cells.

CEO Carla Grandori says SEngine grew from her work with an instrument that drug companies use to test various chemicals in assays, which was adapted for use with live cells.

SEngines breakthrough was in the way it prepares the cells so they can stay alive throughout testing. SEngine is working on ways to use enzymes to automate that time-consuming process. It already uses robotics to speed the placing of tiny drops of each drug precisely onto the cancer cells. And it has developed a sophisticated app to analyze the results. The work with patients also helps identify the vulnerabilities of cancer cells, information SEngine uses to develop synthetic genes that can attack the cancer without hurting the patient, with the goal of vastly increasing the number of targeted drugs available.

Grandori says the next step is to work with more patients and with research labs to expand its database so it can better identify the drug or drug combinations that work best against the 100 to 1,000 mutations that might be present in any given patients cancer cells. She is also talking to pharmaceutical companies about using the process to determine more quickly which of a companys drugs are effective against which mutations and what other mutations the drug companies should consider targeting.

1. Live cancer cells taken from the patient are kept cold and sent to SEngines Seattle laboratory.

2. The cancer cells are cultured in a special medium in each of as many as 384 compartments in an ice-cube-tray-like container.

3. The tray is kept in an incubator for about a week creating an organoid, a substance that preserves the identity of the original cells.

4. Robotic devices place tiny drops of each type of cancer drug on the organoids, and a fluorescent dye is added to help differentiate live from dead cells.

5. Computational scientists, mathematicians and biologists feed the data, picked up by image sensors, into a specially developed app that analyzes the results in the cloud and compares them against a database of past analyses. The results are communicated to a patients doctors to help recommend drug treatment options.