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NIH Grant Funds Review for New Brain Cancer Diagnostics

Brain networks illustration


2 December 2014. National Cancer Institute, an agency of National Institutes of Health (NIH), awarded a grant to HealthTell Inc. to validate the company’s technology for development of a simple test to diagnose brain cancers, including glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive and malignant form of the disease. The $225,000 grant to HealthTell funds an early-stage study by the San Ramon, California company under NIH’s Small Business Innovative Research program.

The grant will evaluate HealthTell’s core technology that harnesses the human immune system to test an individual’s immune response to brain cancer. At present, says the company, physicians need to combine magnetic resonance imaging with invasive procedures, such as biopsies, to accurately diagnose brain cancer. Because of the time, risk, and expense, these methods are usually performed only after the cancer has progressed to more advanced stages, which for glioblastoma multiforme, can leave little survival time for the patient.

HealthTell’s technology, called immunosignatures, assesses a drop of a patient’s blood for the presence of antibodies generated by the immune system that act as biomarkers indicating specific diseases. The company says it collected a library of peptides that can detect 30 different infectious or chronic diseases, including various types of cancer. HealthTell’s technology is based on research by the company’s scientific founders, Stephen Johnson and Neal Woodbury, co-directors of the Center for Innovations in Medicine at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute.

In this project, HealthTell is partnering with Biodesign Institute and Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix to validate immunosignatures as an accurate and reliable diagnostic tool for brain cancers. The project aims to determine first if immunosignatures can detect cancer of the brain, and distinguish it from other forms of cancer. This distinction is important, since brain cancer can occur as a result of another form of cancer spreading to the brain. In later stages, the study also plans to determine if immunosignatures can distinguish between various grades of malignant cancers; this level of granularity in the diagnosis can help select appropriate treatments for the patient.

“A simple test which monitors changes in a patient’s immune activity,” says HealthTell’s CEO Bill Colston in a company statement, “will provide clinicians with a needed tool which will enable more accurate disease classification, simple monitoring of treatment, and possible determination of disease recurrence.” The company says it plans to incorporate its diagnostics in microchip devices that make it possible to detect cancer in people at risk for the disease, but who are not yet showing symptoms.

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