March 30, 2016
By Arlene Weintraub
Article originally published by Forbes
In mid-March, a tiny biotech company called ITUS entered the political fray by launching the website Cancer4Pres.org and calling on the top five presidential candidates to outline their plans for conquering the disease should they be elected. The site was the brainchild of Robert Berman, CEO of ITUS, which is developing a blood test, or “liquid biopsy,” for the early detection of solid tumors. Berman says he has reached out to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and their top rivals and invited them to use his site to outline their cancer policies.
The candidates are ignoring Berman’s pleas, which is not surprising considering the rise of terrorism and other threats that likely seem more urgent to the average voter. Still, Berman is undeterred, and he’s heartened by the more than 3,300 people who have visited Cancer4Pres and clicked on the “Cancer Counts” button to urge the candidates to start talking about the disease.
“I’m hoping the candidates will do a top-to-bottom review how we’re doing in cancer research, and how the government is funding it,” Berman says. “For example, they should review whether 99% of government funding should go towards trying to cure advanced cancer, or whether they should devote more to prevention and early detection.”
Berman has more than just a personal interest in getting cancer on the political agenda, of course. He’s trying to bring attention to ITUS subsidiary Anixa Diagnostics, which is developing Cchek, a blood test that the company believes will be able to detect some types of solid cancers when they’re small enough to be cured. But ITUS is a bit player in an increasingly competitive field of scientists and companies trying to develop devices that will catch tumors in their earliest stages, before they metastasize and become difficult to treat. ITUS is operating with virtually no revenues and only about $6.1 million in cash, according to its most recent SEC filing.
ITUS CEO Rob Berman is trying to get the presidential candidates to focus on cancer research. (Photo courtesy of R. Berman, used with permission.)
A little attention from the candidates would help at least to raise the profile of cancer research, and more specifically early detection, Berman says. “You might say how can the president really make a difference?” he says. “Most of the infrastructure [for cancer research] was put together in 1971—the national cancer centers, the way cancer research is funded, regulatory rules. I think that all of that needs to be looked at to see if it still serves our best interest. “
ITUS, based in Los Angeles, was born three years ago, after Berman took over a failing technology company called CopyTele, recapitalized it, changed its name and ticker symbol and began searching for a technology to commercialize. He entered into a collaboration with Amit Kumar, a chemistry Ph.D. and the former CEO of CombiMatrix, a company that develops genomic tests. Kumar had identified two technologies he believed would could be the basis of an early cancer screening test, and together, the two entrepreneurs launched Anixa in June 2015.
Cchek works by identifying specific biomarkers in blood that its developers believe signal the early development of cancerous tumors. Anixa is working with the Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania to refine and validate the test in trials. In October, the company announced that an initial test using blood samples from a small group of breast cancer patients showed that the biomarkers were present in 100% of patients. The company has since expanded the trial to include other tumor types and expects to release data in the third quarter of this year, Berman says.
Anixa’s technology is one of several methods being examined for early cancer detection. Some scientists are working on genetic tests to identify mutations that may signal early-stage cancer. Others are inventing breath tests that are inspired by the well-documented ability of dogs to sniff cancer. Those tests are designed to detect “volatile organic compounds,” which are chemicals emitted by tumors.
But Berman’s biggest rival is likely biotech giant Illumina, which recently drew $100 million from Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and others to launch GRAIL. The startup is working on a test designed to detect tiny pieces of tumor DNA that circulate through the bloodstream.
ITUS will likely face regulatory challenges, too. Even if Berman and his colleagues choose to bypass the FDA and market its device without the agency’s approval—and that is possible—there’s no guarantee the company will succeed. Witness the travails of Pathway Genomics, a San Diego company that began marketing its liquid biopsy, CancerIntercept, directly to consumers in September, only to receive a warning letter from the FDA saying the test hadn’t been properly validated and could harm public health. Pathway said in a statement it was preparing a response.
Berman says ITUS is still figuring out the best path to market for Cchek, as the company continues to tell its story to potential investors. He says he’s not concerned about competing with Illumina, and he’s thrilled that deep-pocketed investors like Gates are stepping up to support early cancer detection. “People have talked about [early detection] being the holy grail,” Berman says. “Illumina announcing they are funding GRAIL actually helps, because it brings more eyeballs to the industry.”
As for Cancer4Pres, Berman says he’ll continue trying to persuade the candidates that cancer policy should be part of their campaigns. The site has launched a Twitter campaign, and Berman recently published an editorial on Fox News’ website suggesting that the candidates should be less focused on the threat of gun violence in the U.S. and other hot-button issues and more worried about terrorist cancer cells that could be lurking undetected in our bodies. He pointed out that while an estimated 30,000 people will die from gun violence this year, the damage from cancer will be much greater. “In comparison, 600,000 people will die from cancer-related illnesses,” he wrote.
Berman says he’s paying attention to Joe Biden’s cancer “moonshot” initiative, launched after the vice president’s son, Beau, died of brain cancer last May. He just wishes the Obama administration had acted a lot earlier. “Our goal is to get the president focused on a plan for addressing cancer at the beginning of their term,” he says. “It shouldn’t take the death of the vice president’s son for the administration to do something.”
Robert Berman responds to the article:
Cancer4President.org was born out of our outrage that more isn’t being done in the fight against cancers. While it is common for corporations to lobby for specific changes to laws or regulations, that is not the purpose of C4P. The sole objective of C4P is to make cancer a priority for our next president. The way to do that is to show the presidential candidates that voters care about cancer. So far, voters are demonstrating that cancer is an important election issue by clicking our “Cancer Counts” tabulator and using our email engine to email the candidates in honor of people they know that have been affected by cancers.
We are on the verge of some transformative advancements that will change the way we approach cancers for the next 50 years. If the next administration comes into office with a plan to make cancer a priority, we believe that those advancement will happen sooner, which will benefit the entire cancer community.
ITUS is a publicly traded company that does not rely on or seek government funding or government assistance. If as a byproduct of the C4P campaign, ITUS, and Anixa, our cancer diagnostic subsidiary, are cast into the spotlight in articles such as the one appearing in Forbes, that is an added benefit, and a consequence that we are certainly happy to live with.
Arlene Weintraub is a science journalist and author who specializes in covering healthcare, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, and is the author of the book Heal: The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures.
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