Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, and if diagnosed at an early stage, the cancer is more likely to be treated successfully. In fact, more than 90% of women diagnosed at the earliest stage survive their disease for at least 5 years, compared to only 15% when diagnosed at the most advanced stage. Screening programs are important to discover the cancer at an early stage, but although mammograms, the current gold standard, are proven effective, it has limitations. It is not only uncomfortable, but can be difficult to interpret in younger women. In addition, the accuracy of the procedure is dependent on the technique used, experience and skill of the radiologist, and may provide false-negative or false-positive results.
The Springdale, Arkansas-based startup Ascendant Dx commercialize disruptive diagnostic technologies that aid in the diagnosis of diseases affecting women and children. Their first product, Melody, is based on a discovery made by Suzanne Klimberg, who found that breast cancer proteins are detectable in tears. The discovery led her to co-invent a process and device which can detect breast cancer in women by collecting their tears. A Schirmer strip is placed under the eyelid to absorb tears for a couple of minutes before it is placed in a buffer fluid. The eluted proteins are transferred to the cartridge, and results are given in less than 30 minutes. The device resembles a memory stick and once the proteins react with the cartridge a line appears, much like a home pregnancy test, if there is a positive reading for breast cancer.
The innovative technology could potentially change the way screening is performed around the world. The device is far less expensive than mammography and has a sensitivity of 90%, more accurate than mammograms at detecting early cancer. It could increase access to early diagnostics in areas where access to mammography is limited, and unlike mammography it can screen all women, regardless of age or breast density. This means that the technology could change the paradigm for how we screen for cancer in the future. The inexpensive test can be widely done at low costs, allowing the use of more expensive screenings like MRI on the positive reading.
Although the test could have been used as a home-test, the startup has no plans to develop an over-the-counter version. Instead they envision it to be part of an annual checkup, similar to a pap smear for cervical cancer, where it is conducted in a controlled, clinical setting.
The technology could help millions of women worldwide. In some parts of Africa, death rates are as high as 60%, mainly due to the lack of early diagnostics. Ascendant Dx could play a major part in lowering these devastating numbers, and help build cost-effective and feasible screening programs in all four corners of the earth. It could greatly increase the chances of successful treatment, improve health outcomes and quality of life, and ultimately increase survival rates for all women with breast cancer.
Ascendant Dx was birthed in the University of Arkansas’ technology park in Fayetteville and in 2014 obtained $2 million in an investment round from unnamed strategic and private investors, as well as the Arkansas Economic Development Authority and Arkansas Science and Technology Administration. The startup has also received funding from PeaceHealth, and has previously been a finalist of SBA’s InnovateHER competition, as well as SXSW Eco's Startup Showcase, a pitch competition spotlighting innovative early stage companies.