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IOWA CITY — Treating cancer within today's medical boundaries typically involves a one-size-fits-all method based on the law of averages, according to a University of Iowa researcher.
But that is changing, said Kristina Thiel, research scientist in the UI Carver College of Medicine and co-founder of Immortagen — a new UI-associated personalized medicine company based in Coralville. In the future, Thiel said, she believes oncologists will provide personalized cancer care using genetic testing of individual tumors.
And, she said, Immortagen is at the forefront of that technology.
The company, founded last March, is on the verge of introducing products that will allow health care providers to preserve patient tumors and identify the most effective drugs. Thiel said researchers have spent the past year conceiving and developing the products, and she expects 'validation' tests on tumors will be performed within a few months.
'That's what we need to become operational and get the ball rolling,' Thiel said.
Right now, most treatment centers throw away patient tumors, which Thiel said doctors instead could use to get a better picture of the type of cancer they're treating. By using an Immortagen algorithm, physicians could identify the most effective drugs for a patient based on genetic mutations identified through a sequencing system and predict the odds the cancer will return, according to Thiel.
'We hope to launch the first product line in the coming months,' she said.
Those products involve tumor banking and genetic sequencing. The company plans to hire up to 10 employees as its gains momentum.
'Within the next few years, we will be doing personalized cancer treatment,' Thiel said, adding that even President Barack Obama acknowledged the potential in his State of the Union address. 'He recognized that precision medicine is the way of the future. And cancer is the low-hanging fruit.'
The company also aims to preserve tumors for future genetic testing by freezing them in liquid nitrogen and storing them in its lab in the BioVentures Center, which is based in the UI Research Park in Coralville.
Thiel and three other UI researchers founded Immortagen last year with guidance and $75,000 in startup funding from the UI Research Foundation and UI Ventures, a program that assists university inventors in creating ventures based on research.
The founders also participated in the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center's Venture School, a seven-week course that helps entrepreneurs in the startup process.
'For a while, it was still just an idea,' Thiel said. 'But going through the UI Venture School was integral for us to take a really great scientific discovery and commercialize it.'
Lynn Allendorf, director of the UI entrepreneurial center, said Immortagen was an ideal candidate for the venture school.
'They embraced the customer discovery process and were willing to do the hard work necessary to turn their brilliant and potentially lifesaving work into a commercially viable product,' Allendorf said in a statement.
In its early stages, the Immortagen research has focused on cancers such as those affecting the uterus, ovaries and breasts. But, Thiel said, the technology holds opportunity for any type of cancer.
On Friday, the State Health Registry of Iowa, which is based at the UI College of Public Health, will issue its annual 'Cancer in Iowa' report. That report is expected to focus on melanoma, including recent advances in research, treatment, and early detection.