Hopkins Alumnus Receives Grant to Improve Lung Cancer Early Detection Test
For the past five years, 20/20 Gene Systems CEO and JHU alumnus Jonathan Cohen has been overseeing the development of a blood test for the early detection of lung cancer. Five months ago, Genesys BioLabs, a division of 20/20, began test marketing the detection system in the Washington, D.C., area. And in August, 20/20 received a grant from the University of Maryland’s Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) program to work with a University of Maryland Baltimore associate professor Feng Jiang to see if Jiang’s new microRNA biomarker approach could help further improve the accuracy of the test.
The test currently looks at six biomarkers for lung cancer. The biomarkers are proteins in the blood that can serve as early indicators of the disease. And while Cohen says the test already has “very good accuracy,” – it’s been validated on more than 1,500 high quality samples from diverse sources – the company is always on the lookout for novel other biomarkers that could potentially improve its accuracy.
“We’re determined to provide the most accurate results that science can provide at any point in time,” he said.
It’s that determination that led 20/20 to Jiang and, ultimately, the MIPS grant.
We recently caught up with Cohen to talk about the test, the grant, and his time at Johns Hopkins.
HH: First, tell us more about the test.
COHEN: We’re marketing the test to primary care physicians. So far we have 25 physicians that are sending in blood samples for testing and we’re generally picking up two to three new medical practices each week. So we’re definitely growing.
HH: Why is this test so important?
COHEN: Early detection of lung cancer saves lives. That has been proven. The advantage of our blood test is that it’s simple and easy to do in a doctor’s office. Someone can go get a CT scan and get similar results, but often people don’t get CT scans because they fear radiation from yearly scanning not to mention that it requires making an appointment with a radiologist. Smokers at risk for lung cancer just aren’t doing them on a routine basis. Also, CT Scans have a very high false positive rates resulting in needless, expensive follow-up testing. Our test makes it easy since it only requires another tube of blood when you are getting other blood work done.
HH: What’s the purpose of the MIPS grant?
COHEN: A group of investigators at the University of Maryland Baltimore have been pioneering an approach called microRNA as a biomarker for early detection of lung cancer and have promising results. The challenge is that, so far, it’s only been tested with a very small numbers of patients. The MIPS funding will allow us to determine whether or not their biomarkers could improve our test.
HH: This particular test focuses on lung cancer right now. Eventually will you be able to apply the same technology to other forms of cancer?
COHEN: Not this particular product. But we have a platform technology for personalized medicine that is useful for a variety of other tumors, including kidney and breast cancer.
HH: Let’s talk about your company.
COHEN: Well, this product was released by Genesys BioLab, which is a division of our company, 20/20 Gene Systems. Besides the blood test and the personalized medicine technology I’ve already mentioned, we also have a product that we sell to first responders that detects biological microbes and toxins in suspicious powders. I started 20/20 Gene Systems in 2000, shortly after graduating with my M.S. in Biotechnology from Johns Hopkins.
HH: Now that you’ve mentioned your degree… what made you enroll in the JHU program?
COHEN: At the time I enrolled, I was a patent attorney with a mechanical engineering background. But I knew I wanted to transition into life sciences. The JHU program was unique in that it allowed me to continue to work full-time and pay my mortgage while taking classes at night. If not for the JHU program, I’m not sure I would have been able to transition into the biotech industry.
HH: What did you get out of the program?
COHEN: I do not have a heavy life science background, but I knew I’d need one to run a biotech company. The Hopkins program gave me enough of a technical background that I could work within the biotechnology space. It also made me realize that I am not a scientist and I shouldn’t try to be one. But I know enough that I can hire the right people – 20/20 currently has 4 PhDs and one MD on staff – ask the right questions, and look for the right technologies. And I know enough to not go near the bench!
HH: What did you think of the program?
COHEN: The training was very good and it was well structured. There are a number of classes that I took from which I still utilize the things I learned. It provided a great foundation and a number of the electives were timely and relevant.
HH: I have to ask. You’re forging a close relationship with a University of Maryland researcher. With your academic ties to JHU – and I know your company has been involved in some of our K-12 programming like Frontiers in Science and Medicine – are you working with JHU researchers as well?
COHEN: JHU research is an extraordinary potential resource for the Maryland biotech community, and I believe that it is becoming more accessible to companies like 20/20. The state is really pushing in this direction though Innovate Maryland and other programs designed to fund the transition of technologies from the lab to the marketplace. Over the summer, we made at least two presentations at Hopkins Medicine in connection with our lung cancer blood test, now on the market, and kidney tumor profiling test, which we hope to launch by this time next year. I am optimistic that we should be able to announce at least one collaboration by year end.
For more about Cohen’s new lung cancer blood test, go to bloodtestforlungcancer.com.