DocWire News recently spoke with Dr. Ofer Sharon, CEO of OncoHost, a company that combines life-science research and advanced machine learning technology to develop personalized strategies to maximize the success of cancer therapy.
See what Dr. Sharon had to say.
DocWire News: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your company, OncoHost?
Dr. Ofer Sharon: Sure, I’d be happy to. So, I’m a physician by training, I’ve been in the industry for the last 18 years, spending my time about roughly half and half between startup companies. Dealing mainly with combinations of algorithms, and mathematics, and medicine, trying to create the connections between the predictive capability of machine learning tools and clinical utility. And the rest of the time is a medical director and scout for new technologies for big pharma companies. So as the head of medical affairs for Merck in Israel, Merck Pharmaceuticals. I was proud to be part of the launch of Keytruda in the early days. I was also the head of medical affairs for AstraZeneca, and scout for new technologies for AstraZeneca and MedImmune. Again, dealing mostly with oncology and immunotherapy for those companies.
DocWire News: How does the PROphet system work in identifying cancer?
Dr. Ofer Sharon: Yeah, so the PROphet is basically combining analysis of proteins in the plasma using standard blood tests. So we use standard tubes in order to take blood from the patients at two time points, before treatment and immediately after treatment and combine that with the platform that we developed here in house, in OncoHost, that is basically using machine learning tools, bioinformatic tools, in order to create a response prediction as early as the first treatment that the patient is receiving. And also analyze the different biological pathways and identify potential resistance mechanisms for tumor response.
DocWire News: What are the benefits of genetic profiling (at detecting cancer)?
Dr. Ofer Sharon: Yeah. I think that if we compare proteomics to genomics, we are basically looking at a, we can imagine a stream of water. So, the genes and mutations are found upstream and the proteins are found downstream. Next generation sequencing and genetic testing is something that has been validated and has been in the market for many years now. And we start to see a significant use of those technologies in recent years. Proteomics is relatively new. However, the benefit of proteomics, when we compare it to genetics, is the fact that when you actually find a protein in the plasma, it means that there is a biological process, something happened there. The fact that you have a mutation does not necessarily that it’s going to end up with a protein or with a biological process, because in a way, genes and mutations represent the potential and protein’s the actual thing. If you have a protein, there is a biological process. And if we can identify this protein and we can relate it to a specific resistance mechanisms, then we have a very powerful tool to identify what is going on in that specific patient at a specific time point.
DocWire News: How critical is early detection in cancer?
Dr. Ofer Sharon: Yes. So, we have to divide between early detection of mainly the diagnosis of the disease to early response prediction. You probably want me to talk about response prediction. Otherwise, I can talk about early detection, but it’s a bit different, guide me. Okay. So early response prediction, I think is the place that we are interested in, in this discussion. So, in recent years, and I’m not talking about 20 years, I’m talking about less than 10 years, we see a new class of therapy emerging called immunotherapy, which is very unique. And instead of directing the treatment of the tumor, we are actually directing our treatment at the immune system trying to activate, in a way, cancer cells, immune cells against the cancer, against the tumor. So this represented a huge promise when we launched the first product globally, because if you think about it, this is not specific to a tumor, to an indication.
If I’m activating the immune system, then potentially I can target all types of tumors. And this was, in the beginning, this was the hidden promise behind the new treatment. And we were confident in a way that is going to be almost universal kind of treatment. Nevertheless, since then we learned. We learned that not all patients are responding the way we expect them to respond, and it’s not relevant, or it’s not working the same for the tumors. Nevertheless, these treatments when they work, they are super effective. And the duration of response is long. But now we are faced with a situation where we have a new drug that is good for many indications, requires relatively long times of treatment, and is very expensive. And I think that at this point it’s critical to start identifying which patients are actually benefiting from this treatment.
And this is not a thought coming from a physician. This is a thought coming from the ASCO. So last year, ASCO defined it as one of the nine top research priorities in clinical oncology. Professor James Allison that won a Nobel Prize for the invention of one of the immunotherapies was quoted saying that the biggest challenge today is to understand which patients are actually benefiting from treatment. So now we see a point in time where this is getting much more attention than it used to in the past, because we do need to identify the patients that actually benefit from the treatment, which is kind of different from what we had in the past, where we just gave it to all [inaudible 00:06:10]. And the fact is that currently, we do not have good biomarkers that are able to classify the patients early as responders and non-responders and this is one of the challenges that we are trying to solve here at OncoHost.
DocWire News: How big an impact do you see this system having on the fight against cancer?
Dr. Ofer Sharon: It’s huge. It’s a huge impact because if you think about it today, the way we treat our patients in oncology is mostly based on protocols, one size fits all protocol. So a 70 year old lady will receive the same treatment as a 40 year old male. And I think that now we understand that they are not the same patient, and now we understand that we need to personalize the treatment according to their needs. The fact is that we didn’t have the tools to do that up until now. These are developing as we speak with companies like us and [inaudible 00:07:12]. So the impact is huge just if we consider the fact that five years from now, three years from now, we are going to see a much deeper profiling of patients before treatment, as treatment begins, and as monitoring during treatment in order to modify the treatment according to the actual patient needs.
I really believe that this is where we are going to in the coming future, just because the system just cannot afford paying for all the patients, all those expensive drugs, all the time. So I think that the impact is going to be huge in the way we treat our patients and personalized medicine is going to take, in the coming year, a much more central place in how we treat our patients.