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QIMR Berghofer and Proteomics International partner to detect early oesophageal cancer

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Perth-based medical technology company Proteomics International Laboratories Ltd to begin developing a potential blood test to detect the most common form of oesophageal cancer in Australia.

Oesophageal adenocarcinoma is a potentially fatal type of oesophageal cancer that affects the section of the digestive tract just above the stomach. Doctors currently rely on endoscopies and biopsies to diagnose the cancer but those procedures are often only performed when obvious symptoms appear, which is usually at a late stage of the disease.

Under the partnership Proteomics International Laboratories Ltd, an Australian ASX-listed company which specialises in developing new clinical diagnostic tests, will use its Promarker™ platform to confirm biomarkers — or ‘fingerprints’ in the blood —that QIMR Berghofer researchers have found are early indicators of the cancer.

If successful, the test could be offered to patients with Barrett’s oesophagus, a non-cancerous condition that increases the risk of developing oesophageal cancer. Barrett’s oesophagus affects one to two per cent of the population and occurs when the oesophagus is damaged by acid reflux.

Gastroenterologists currently recommend patients with Barrett’s oesophagus be screened every three months to three years to check for pre-cancerous cells. If discovered early, the pre-cancerous cells can be treated to prevent oesophageal cancer.

The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Precision and Systems Biomedicine Laboratory, Associate Professor Michelle Hill, who has led the discovery of the blood biomarkers, said the blood test under development could fundamentally change Barrett’s oesophagus surveillance and oesophageal cancer screening.

“At the moment, patients have to undergo an invasive endoscopy, with a camera passed down their throat to look for changes in the oesophageal tissue, and have a biopsy taken. It’s uncomfortable for patients, requires an anaesthetic and specialist expertise, and comes with some risk of perforation and bleeding,” Associate Professor Hill said.

“Endoscopies are also expensive, costing an average of AU$2676 in Australia. As most Barrett’s oesophagus patients will not develop cancer, a blood test to pre-select the right patients for endoscopic diagnosis would benefit patients, doctors and the health system.”

Proteomics International managing director Dr Richard Lipscombe said the new blood-based screening technology could also be broadened in future to identify other patients at highest risk of oesophageal adenocarcinoma, including people with chronic reflux and older, overweight men.

“It has huge potential to ensure the highest risk patients receive endoscopies, thereby limiting unnecessary patient discomfort and reducing the burden on the health system,” Dr Lipscombe said.

“The collaboration with QIMR Berghofer is a positive step and a part of Proteomics International’s strategy to continually expand its diagnostics portfolio in areas of significant unmet medical need.”

If the collaboration is successful, Proteomics International will have first rights to license the IP and commercialise the test worldwide. The collaboration will be for one year. QIMR Berghofer has patents pending for the biomarker panel in Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States. The patent has already been approved in China.

Proteomics International’s proprietary Promarker™ platform has already been used to develop PromarkerD, the world’s first commercially-available test for diabetic kidney disease.

Oesophageal adenocarcinoma has been highlighted as a major global health concern, and the incidence is rising rapidly having increased five-fold in Australia in the past 40 years. It is estimated there are more than 6 million patients with the disease across North America, Australia and Europe.