Terri Bruce happened to be working on experiments about how the body’s cells communicate when her brother learned he had a brain tumor. Greg Foster died in January 2019, within months of Bruce starting a company whose work could soon help save other cancer patients.
“When he got sick, I started looking at how exosomes could be used in early cancer diagnostics,” the Clemson University researcher and entrepreneur says. “Had we caught it a little bit earlier, he may have been able to receive treatment that might have saved his life.”
So … what is an exosome?
For 40-odd years, scientists considered exosomes waste materials. Miro Pastrnak, Bruce’s partner in their startup, Victory ExoFibres, describes them as “sneeze droplets for cells.” Bruce calls exosomes “messages in oil balls,” which carry disease markers in common body fluids. Unlike cell-free DNA or proteins that degrade rapidly, exosomes’ lipid casings protect those markers in biofluid.
The trick is to efficiently isolate them. The company uses patented synthetic fibers to do just that.
Requiring less than a milliliter of bodily fluid, each isolation container contains a tube that looks like a golf tee. Inside that tube is the patented fiber that isolates the exosomes. When spun in a lab centrifuge, the exosomes are now ready to give up their secrets.
The process takes about 15 minutes. Until now, extracting these molecular spies could take up to four hours, Bruce and Pastrnak say.
“It’s like trying to pick peas out of your mom’s vegetable soup, that you don’t want to eat. There’s a lot of stuff in that veggie soup, but to look at those peas specifically you’ve got to get them out of the veggie soup,” Bruce says.
The Clemson assistant research professor, who earned her doctorate in biological sciences from there in 2009 after working as a chemical engineer for the likes of Duracell and Lockwood Greene, explains the product’s multiple benefits.
Typically, testing for or, worse, diagnosing cancer is invasive, Bruce says: “You often have to go into an operating room or sterile area to get this done.” That’s why Bruce and Pastrnak refer to Victory ExoFibres’ product as a liquid biopsy, which, she says, is also “just generally more pleasant for the patient.”
Each kit holds 50 exosome-isolation tubes. For each box, the target price will fall between $500 and $700 for the product, which Pastrnak expects to hit the research-supplies market in the next few months.
Ultimately, the company hopes to include exosome-based clinical diagnostics, but that requires FDA approval, a process that can cost more than $10 million. Once the company validates the product in the market, Pastrnak says fundraising will begin in earnest.
Victory ExoFibres won an early backer, the South Carolina Research Authority, which in January accepted the company as a member. That opens the door to SCRA’s Resource Partner Network and potential investments from authority affiliate, SC Launch Inc.
“The work that Victory ExoFibres is doing is critical to the future of health care,” SCRA program manager Jeannine Briggman Rogers says. “Any advancement in the accuracy, speed and clarity of diagnostic testing that improves the quality of patient care benefits everyone.”
Bruce credits her brother with infusing his experience as a founder of two tech startups, an executive at Turner Broadcasting System and as a venture capitalist, into her scientific-cum-corporate enterprise.
Foster died at 45 in their native Atlanta. Catching brain and ovarian and other such cancers can result in higher remission rates, Bruce says. That, and her brother’s encouragement, continue to drive and inspire her.
“I’m going to keep going, keep going,” she says. “Those are discussions that my brother and I used to have and that’s one thing I really miss about him.”
What are Exosomes?
“Exosomes are a perfect target for rapid diagnostics and liquid biopsy,” the company says, explaining that they are formed from the plasma membrane of cells:
They contain the same membrane proteins as the host cell.
These proteins are “fingerprints” that can be used as disease biomarkers in diagnostics.
They are cellular couriers that genetic information between cells.
Virtually every cell type in the body releases these biomolecules.
Exosomes have been called “the rising star in drug delivery.”