Ourotech is taking the guesswork out of cancer treatment

Every day spent with late stage cancer matters — that’s why it’s so important to get treatments right the first time. Unfortunately, despite having dozens of cancer treatments available, we don’t have great processes for determining what treatments to prioritize. The consequence of this is that we often miscalculate and waste critical time pursuing the wrong path.

Ourotech is working to help doctors identify in advance which drugs are most likely to have the biggest impact killing a type of cancer. With proprietary synthetic gels, Ourotech is able to remove cancer cells from the body and test them against a variety of possible treatments.

Duleek Ranatunga, co-founder of Ourotech, explained to me in an interview that doctors traditionally have guidelines for how to treat cancer patients. In the case of breast cancer, they will first check if the cancer is HER2 positive or HER2 negative — the presence or absence of this protein dictates which of the 30 breast cancer treatments approved by the FDA should be prioritized. Unfortunately, even after the test, if you’re HER2 positive, there are still five preferred treatments and eight backups.

The process for picking between those five preferred treatments is anything but an exact science. Once selected, treatments consist of three to six drugs administered over the course of a year so it can be a long time before doctors realize they picked the wrong treatment.

So instead, Ranatunga, alongside his co-founder William Lin, are enabling doctors to test drugs for effectiveness by removing cancer from the body, cutting it up into small samples, and getting it growing again inside a specialty gel. This process can cut that year long process down to just a week.

The gel in this equation is incredibly important because it has to emulate the exact conditions within the body at the site of the cancer to serve as an accurate proxy for the real cancer. This means that, in the case of breast cancer, the gel can’t just emulate human tissue, it has to emulate human breast tissue.

Traditionally, approaches to this type of testing have relied on gene matching. If a drug has been FDA approved to treat a specific gene, you can try to determine what drug to use by searching for that target gene within the patients cancer. Unfortunately this only allows you to infer which drug is best. In reality, many factors are at play when a series of cancer treatment drugs enter the body. The only way to know a treatment will work for sure is to actually test it.

Hydrogels are not new. Popular hydrogels used today come from mice. But this too presents a problem, because these hydrogels are not a perfect proxy for the human body. It’s well known that many treatments that are tested on mice do not cause the same effects in humans.

It’s for this reason that Ourotech opted to create a synthetically modified gel based on bacteria for its tests. This increases the likelihood that a test done in the gel will be representative of the actual treatment outcome in a human

While the team waits on the arduous FDA approval process, it is commercializing its hydrogel with a drug testing as a service model. Pharmaceutical companies are willing to pay Ourotech to trial their promising drugs using the gel as an early indicator that the treatment could be effective.

Eventually Ourotech will be able to move beyond breast cancer into other types of cancer. The startup already has a partnership for colorectal cancer and is considering options for brain cancer as well. All of the data from this testing will prove to be a serious asset for the company when it becomes feasible to begin doing software testing. To this avail, Ourotech is beginning to invest some resources into developing machine learning models to preemptively predict the effectiveness of various treatments.