There have been revolutionary steps toward cancer and stroke-related research at the University of Kansas. The Center of BioModular Multi-Scale Systems for Precision Medicine (CBM2) research center uses microfluidic chips to perform liquid biopsies. In other words, CBM2 can detect hard-to-diagnose diseases by analyzing bodily fluids through plastic chips.
Dr. Steven Soper, director of CBM2, wants to commercialize the screening tests for ovarian cancer and make testing a standard part of a yearly physical. “We’ve discovered that certain particles, called extracellular vesicles, are generated from the tumor cells very early, and in the early stages of this disease, we can pick those up by putting the blood through a small little microchip that we develop here,” Soper says. Then they enrich the particles out of the blood sample and count them. From there, CBM2 can detect when someone likely has ovarian cancer.
The microchip technology is from CBM2’s partnership with San Diego-based company BioFluidica. “We make the chips, the reagents and the software and some of the hardware that supports that core that they use every day,” says BioFluidica COO Judy Mullen-Cohn. “In a sense, [CBM2 is] both a partner and a customer of BioFluidica. The platform is called the LiquidScan, and it can isolate rare cells. So it can be any kind of rare cell from any kind of bodily fluids.”
The company sells to academic institutions for research, pharmaceutical companies doing clinical trials, and nonprofits and research foundations. It focuses on oncology and prenatal screening.
CBM2 research is doing what the infamous Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos couldn’t: developing a new generation of tests that use only small samples. Among the other areas of medicine being worked on is the early detection of Covid and strokes.
In Kansas City, Dr. Andrew Godwin at the KU Medical Center has targeted tests for ovarian cancer because of the difficulty in catching it early. “We’re doing a lot of work in the areas of early detection because that’s a very important aspect of cancer,” Godwin says. “When women develop the disease, it tends to be late stage and there is no cure at that point.”
Pediatric patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia are the focus of another project. Rather than detecting it first-hand, Soper is looking to test for relapse. Typically a small sample of bone marrow is used, but those are extremely painful and difficult to secure from pediatric patients. With the same microchip technology, Soper and the Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City are testing patients. There’s also hope in stroke research. “We have the blood markers for diagnosing ischemic stroke or clinically verifying them and developing the hardware to do the test,” Soper says. “It has to be very simple to do so even a paramedic can do it.” All it requires is a small drop of blood into a small instrument to automatically report an ischemic or non-ischemic stroke.
After receiving $6.6 million for funding for the next five years, CBM2 has more room to grow and focus on the future of science.