Baylor team a finalist at international tech start-up event

Two budding entrepreneurs at Baylor may have developed the next big advancement in cancer healthcare. Ravi Pathak and Hristijan Risteski, both members of Dr. Andrew Sikora’s lab in the department of otolaryngology, were among the top 10 finalists out of nearly 750 applicants at OneStart, the world’s largest life sciences and healthcare startup accelerator competition.

Dr. Andrew Sikora, Ravi Pathak and Hristijan Risteski.

Dr. Andrew Sikora, Ravi Pathak and Hristijan Risteski.

OneStart is a worldwide healthcare startup program where individuals looking to improve human healthcare with new innovative research tools, software, devices and diagnostics can apply to receive $150,000 to start their company.

Their budding start-up, Ovodex, seeks to commercialize a novel personalized medicine platform, which could allow clinicians to determine cancer treatments that are most effective for a given patient.

This year finalists were selected through a grueling three-step elimination process, in which participants were judged by a panel of executives from the leading pharmaceutical companies (Bristol-Myers Squibb, GSK, Roche, AstraZeneca), venture capital firms (Takeda Ventures, SR One) and consultancies (McKinsey & Co., Silicon Valley Bank).

Dr. Andrew Sikora, associate professor of otolaryngology and founder of Ovodex, praised the duo’s performance. “While Ovodex did not win the competition, making it to the finals is recognition of the promise and potential of the technology platform, an incredible journey from concept-to-product in a little over one year,” he said.

Pathak and Risteski presented an idea that would dramatically speed up the process of determining effective cancer treatments for specific patients.

“The great problem in cancer treatment is that more than 70 percent of the patients who are receiving standardized care are not responding to the treatment,” said Dr. Pathak.  “Only three out of 10 patients see any effect based on the treatments they get, and that happens because of the different types of cancers they have, and also because of the individual genetic makeup.”

Every person facing cancer responds differently to treatment, so researchers have long worked on the concept of personalized medicine by removing a sample of a patient’s tumor and testing the response of these “patient-derived xenografts” (PDX) to different treatment options. Usually this approach is done by implanting the tumor in immunodeficient mice, which can take up to 6 months to obtain treatment results. Ovodex’s technology developed by Pathak has the potential to reduce this time frame to less than a month.

“We have developed a chicken egg-based model for making patient-derived xenografts,” said Pathak. “Using fertilized chicken eggs, we graft the patient’s tumor on the membrane that surrounds and nourishes the developing embryo. Within five to seven days, the tumor grows, and we are then able to expand it across multiple eggs to start testing for personalized medicine applications.”

Ovodex presentation at OneStart

Risteski and Pathak present at the OneStart competition.

In the past year, they have been able to grow tumors for seven different cancer types, including certain rare cancer types. In many cases, they have proven that the tumor grown on the egg was similar to the tumors growing inside the patient. They were also able to grow certain tumors that could not be grown in mice, thereby demonstrating the versatility, and efficacy of their method.

“Based on our calculations we should be able to come back to the patient within a month with all of the information about their treatment sensitivities – this is real-time personalized medicine,” said Pathak.

The new research minimizes time and cost. “This approach is rapid and cost-efficient. We don’t need a special animal facility to grow these tumors; with the eggs you can monitor them in a regular lab without any high tech instruments or lab facilities.”

This idea has helped launch their start-up company, Ovodex, whose advisory board includes Michael Lewis, associate professor in the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor and nationally-recognized expert on mouse-based PDX models.

Although they did not win the top prize with OneStart, both Pathak and Risteski plan to continue to expand their work to help better improve cancer treatment, and increase life expectancy under the guidance of Sikora.

Clinical trials are expected to start as soon as January 2017. The group has also started providing technical services for the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine as part of the Patient-Derived Xenografts and Advanced in Vivo Models Core.