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16th June 2017

Meet the students on a mission to improve cancer screening

MedTech’s next generation of innovators want to reduce ‘false positives’ in cancer diagnostics

Imagine you’ve been tested for cancer. The results come back – it’s bad news: the test is positive and you’re given a follow-up appointment for next week.

You’re filled with dread. You tell some loved ones but not others, hoping there has been some mistake or that there’s a simple treatment. Hours of internet searching only leaves you with a combination of fear and reasons for optimism.

The second test results come back. This time, it’s negative. You don’t have cancer, after all. The first test was a ‘false positive’.

You could not be more relieved. But you’re also annoyed to have been put through such emotional turmoil – and exhausted after a week of sleepless nights.

This is the experience of almost one million European women who have had ‘false positive’ cervical cancer test results.

Lives saved

Cervical screening programmes have saved countless lives by picking up precancerous cells, allowing doctors to remove them before they can cause harm.

However, the current tests are not perfect. By incorrectly flagging some healthy cervical samples as being at risk of cancer, the test can cause considerable distress, lead to avoidable invasive follow-up tests, and use up valuable financial and human resources.

A team of students in the Netherlands wants to change this by developing a new DNA-methylation test which they hope will have much lower ‘false positive’ rates. They are planning to introduce a patented testing kit that checks samples of cervical cells for a combination of genes found in pre-cancerous cells with the use a PCR machine.

Initial research suggests the test will have significantly fewer false positives than existing smear tests and slightly lower rates of false negatives (which are already very low with existing technologies). The kit would reduce the number of invasive PAP smear tests and colposcopies, according to the students behind the enterprise who say their test has the potential to cut the false positives rate by 33%, saving European health systems more than €120 million per year.

Fixing diagnostics

Jean-Luc Kraaijenoord, the CEO and co-founder of CC Diagnostics, is a law student specialising in intellectual property. So how did he find himself working on cancer screening? ‘I’m interested in patents and in high-level entrepreneurship,’ he says. ‘I met the other students who were studying medicine and business and we decided to work together on something big: trying to fix cancer diagnostics.’

The science behind the new test came from researchers at the University Medical Center Groningen where the team is based. But bringing new ideas from the lab to the clinic is a long road. ‘For scientists, it takes a lot of time to raise funding, secure certification, get a CE mark and take it to market,’ says Jean-Luc. ‘We’ve decided to take this on and the researchers are advising us on technical issues.’

The young team is now wrapping up negotiations with investors and will begin clinical validation in the autumn. Once the test has been validated using a large enough number of samples, the company will target markets in northern Italy and Spain.

‘We’re looking at Lombardy and the Basque country because their privatised health systems are more flexible than other markets,’ explains Jean-Luc. ‘If a gynaecologist wants to embrace the test, or if patients request it, they can choose to buy it.’

If all goes to plan, the team would consider licensing the kit to a larger diagnostic company with the resources to integrate it into existing screening programmes. After that – which could be several years away – CC Diagnostics would seek a new challenge: ‘We’d like to try again with another cancer test. We love that we have an opportunity to take on a challenge that benefits the whole community.’