A ‘sea change’ in the desert
August 2013
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author


PHOENIX— The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Tucson, Ariz.-based Ventana Medical Systems Inc. are taking advantage of their relatively neighboring locations and combining their skills in a collaborative research effort announced this summer to discover and develop diagnostic markers for treating cancer. As the two organizations put it in their news release, two of "Arizona's premier biomedical institutions … will leverage each other's expertise in discovery and diagnostic product development, bringing innovative cancer diagnostic tests to patients."  
The two parties are set for the first project under the umbrella research agreement to focus on diagnostic, prognostic and drug biomarkers for pancreatic cancer, the fourth-leading cause of death from cancer in the United States. This year, they note, an estimated 45,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease, and more than 38,000 patients will die from it. Across the globe, some 213,000 are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, and, they say, "the numbers are growing. Fewer than one in four pancreatic cancer patients survive more than a year, and fewer than 6 percent survive more than five years—the worst survival rate of any cancer."  
The reason for this "dismal picture of pancreatic cancer," as they call it, is mainly due to the lack of tools for early detection and the ineffectiveness of current therapeutics. This is why new diagnostic markers and more efficacious therapies are desperately needed, points out Mara G. Aspinall, president of Ventana, which is a member of the Roche Group.
"Why is this the right time for TGen and Ventana to do this? From a certain point of view, it's because of the acknowledgement from pharma companies and regulatory agencies that companion diagnostics, which have been on the rise in recent years, are not simply nice to have, but absolutely necessary to have," she tells DDNEWS. "We've really expanded out our companion diagnostic efforts and with the growing urgency from pharmas and agencies to get these discovered and validated and ready for clinics, it has compelled us to go find the very best researchers. We have a fantastic team but we recognize we cannot do it all ourselves, and so that has pushed us to be more aggressive in partnering with great organizations like TGen."  
"The requirements that we have for meeting FDA expectations and to work with investigational agents—and the way it all carries into the area of genomic profiling—means that we have to be integrated," adds Dr. Jeffrey Trent, TGen's president and research director. "More and more, you need trials that combine the genomics and the investigational agents. There's no way around it, and the best way to do it is closer partnerships between academic and nonprofit research groups and industry to get more meaningful data out of these studies all the way around."  
The timing of the deal isn't just about market forces, Trent says, but also "aligning well with regulatory actors that can help us succeed or not."  
And, Aspinall adds, aside from the "major sea change from only five years ago" in terms of positive attitudes toward companion diagnostics, it doesn't hurt that the drive between the TGen and Ventana campuses is relatively short, so they can work together more directly, more effectively and more quickly.  
Ventana designs and manufactures instruments and reagents that automate tissue processing and slide staining for cancer diagnostics, and its solutions are used in clinical histology and drug development research laboratories worldwide. The company says that its intuitive, integrated staining, workflow management platforms and digital pathology solutions optimize laboratory efficiencies to reduce errors, support diagnosis and inform treatment decisions for anatomic pathology professionals.  
"When a patient is faced with cancer, getting an accurate diagnosis quickly is the most important part of their treatment," Aspinall said of her company and the collaboration in the news release about the deal. "As the global leader in tissue-based cancer diagnostics, our strength is moving research into the clinic in order to improve the lives of all patients afflicted with cancer. We are thrilled to be able to pursue this with a partner right in our Arizona backyard."  
For its part, TGen is a nonprofit organization focused on helping patients with neurological disorders, cancer and diabetes through translational research, with TGen physicians and scientists working to unravel the genetic components of both common and rare complex diseases in adults and children.  
"TGen is on the cutting edge of translational research, where investigators discover the genetic components of disease," Trent noted in the news release. "Our goal is to rapidly translate basic research findings into actionable targets. Partnering with Ventana, we hope, will accelerate our goal to deliver meaningful discoveries to cancer patients today."
Code: E081313

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