S.D. biotech lab with ties to UC San Diego works to develop faster cancer detection

Sandrine Miller-Montgomery is chief executive of Micronoma.

A San Diego-based biotech firm that has co-founders from UC San Diego is working to develop and commercialize a minimally invasive method for early cancer detection and recently closed a $3 million seed financing round to further its results.

Micronoma was incorporated in June 2019 by its three founders: Sandrine Miller-Montgomery, the company’s chief executive; Rob Knight, director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego; and Greg Poore, an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate at the UCSD School of Medicine.

Micronoma uses liquid biopsy technology from blood samples to detect and predict cancer at an early stage of the disease.

“Armed with the microbiome profiles of thousands of cancer samples from The Cancer Genome Atlas (a database of the National Cancer Institute containing genomic and other information from thousands of patient tumors), the researchers trained and tested hundreds of machine learning models to associate certain microbial patterns with the presence of specific cancers,” according to the company’s press material. “The machine learning models were able to identify a patient’s cancer type using only the microbial data from his or her blood.”

Microbiome is the genetic material of microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses — that live on and inside the body.

“Almost all previous cancer research efforts have assumed tumors are sterile environments and ignored the complex interplay human cancer cells may have with the bacteria, viruses and other microbes that live in and on our bodies,” Knight said in a March article by UCSD Health. “The number of microbial genes in our bodies vastly outnumbers the number of human genes, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they give us important clues to our health.”

As an analogy, Miller-Montgomery said: “If you look into a telescope and point it toward a dark space in the sky, you won’t see much. This is not because you have a bad telescope but because you’re focused on a zone with little to no stars or planets. In the realm of cancer diagnostics, we redirected the telescope from the human or tumor genes (that are informative but not very dense in signal) to the microbiome because it contains many more stars or planets in its frame of view. And because of that shift of perspective, we can see the cancer signal clearly, even in its early stages. The beauty of this discovery is that we didn’t have to reinvent the telescope, we just needed to figure out where and what to look at to get a better signal.”

Using lung cancer as an example, she said: “Let’s say you have pain in your chest, a family history of lung cancer or are a heavy smoker. If something is wrong, right now there is not much you can do besides go to a specialist and get an X-ray and/or a PET scan. We are going to offer a blood test, which is from one tube, the same that you would give for a checkup. We extract from the plasma a signature we look for in the microbe. If we find them, we can bring a report indicating you may have cancer.”

An exact timeline for the process to be commercially available is not known. Miller-Montgomery said it will take three to six more months for the data to be finalized, and Micronoma will work with cancer centers to recruit patients to run a trial at the same time.

“We are going to recruit 500 lung cancer and 500 matching control patients,” she said. “That is going to take another six to eight months to get and analyze the data. Maybe a year from now we will be done running the trial. Once that is done, we are going to offer it … in our lab.”

From there, the technology would be distributed to other labs.

“Obviously, while we would like to save the world, we cannot do so from our lab in S.D.,” Miller-Montgomery said. “We have to train people around the world, so that is going to take a little bit longer. To serve the world population, we would have to transfer the study so other labs can execute it.”

“Nine million people are going to die from cancer globally in a year,” she added. “This number is growing because cancer is not slowing down. We can make a difference faster, so out of that 9 million, 4 million could have been prevented if the diagnosis was done sooner. We don’t want people to die because they were diagnosed too late. We give the patients a chance to fight it. Our eyes are on making a difference.” ◆