Doctor developing device to capture cancer cells
Twelve years ago, Jeff Allen’s wife Denise died from pancreatic cancer. Today, with his two sons’ help, he’s working on a device that will capture cancer stem cells — with the ultimate goal of finding the root cause of the deadly disease.
With a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Ph.D. in analytical biochemistry from Arizona State University, Allen has spent the past 20 years working with biotech companies to develop clinical and diagnostic tools to study blood and biological fluids in infectious disease.
During that time, he said, he’s learned that a lot of “bright people” are working on products, but the questions of cost and who will buy them — where they fit and how they change treatment methods — often slow them down.
After his wife died in 2002, he said he realized he couldn’t “cram all of medical school and an oncology residency into months and couldn’t learn enough about cancer,” so he took a new tack. Initially, he focused on learning as much as he could about pancreatic cancer and its genetic roots, which he said he believes lie in cancer stem cells.
“These are very rare but unique cells that have the ability to not only replicate themselves but to differentiate (change) into the different types of cells which make up a cancer tumor,” noted Allen, a Cardiff resident.
“Relatively new research suggests that a very small number of cancer stem cells may break off from the primary tumor and begin to circulate in the bloodstream, and may become lodged in a different organ than the primary tumor. Then they may begin to grow secondary tumors, thus spreading the cancer throughout the body.”
He said he believes that if these particular cells can be singled out and analyzed for the break in the genetic code that could be causing a tumor to form, new therapies can be designed to target the underlying cause rather than just shrinking a tumor with chemotherapy and radiation.
“It’s not where the cancer starts, it’s what the breaks are in the genome that cause it to metastasize,” he said.
Two years ago, his search for an answer took another step when he formed TumorGen MDx to develop a device to isolate and capture these particular cells. His goal is to be able to sequence the genome to be able to “identify each patient’s unique mutations.”
During his studies, Allen found some discussion about a patient whose breast cancer had metastasized to the pancreas. The researcher, in England, noted that they used tamoxifen, an estrogen-blocking drug commonly used on breast cancer. The woman’s cancer cleared and she lived. “That wasn’t the case with my wife.”
That was one influence moving him to push on and devote himself full-time to developing the company.
“My interest is in fighting this disease. I will never stop,” he added.
Recent research, including work being done at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Michigan, is encouraging him.
The more involved he got, the more intrigued his sons, Austin and Alex, became.
Austin is studying mechanical engineering at MiraCosta College and wants to transfer to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He has experience in AutoCAD design, gained while he was at La Costa Canyon High School. His interest in microfluidic systems fit right in, so he put those skills to work designing the prototype of a chip the size of a microscope slide called the Cancer Stem Cell Capture Chip.
“I’ve always been interested in science,” he said, with a wry grin, adding a few stories about teenage exploits that made his dad and brother smile.
Alex, a Cal State San Marcos biology major with a concentration in molecular cell biology, works in the virology lab there. He’s working on a project determining whether genes in viruses are pathogenic or not. That fit in, too, giving his dad another scientific mind to help on his mission.
“We don’t learn anything if we don’t look for it,” Alex said.
Familiar with the ins and outs of the biotech industry, Allen knows that one of his first steps must be to patent their device, which he contends will provide “a faster, better and cheaper method to analyze cancer stem cells.” After that comes the feasibility phase, proving its applications.
Essentially the device is a series of channels coated with antibodies that bind to specific proteins on the surface of a cancer stem cell, Allen explains in a video on the company’s website. When blood is passed over them, the antibodies snag the cancer stem cells, while remaining blood cells are directed to the waste area and washed away.
The advantage to the TumorGen MDx approach is that the “chip reveals a cell that’s still alive,” as opposed to those identified by traditional methods of staining them or breaking them apart, causing vital information to be lost, Allen said.
Now that they have a working prototype, the mission is to build the company slowly. Acknowledging it is still in its infancy — it truly is a garage-based company — he’s launched an initial fundraising effort via the website
gofundme.com, aiming to raise $50,000 for the next steps.
Allen says he’s not ready to approach angel investors or venture capitalists yet because he’s “not to a data point” that they would support. He’s asking people to contribute at least $30 – the cost of producing each device — and promises they will know where their money goes. At press time, $6,065 had been raised toward the $50,000 goal.
Nearly 150 people have pitched in to date, but there’s a lot of work ahead, he said.
“Research is not for the faint of heart,” he added. “There are technical risks; we are not taking the easy route.” Visit tumorgenmdx.com.