AroCell – innovative cancer test on its way to the market

There is a great need for improved cancer tests and developing such tests based on innovative research ideas is an exciting but demanding challenge. After a long and interesting journey AroCell AB is now close to achieving its goal.

AroCell has developed a test, TK 10 ELISA, that measures the enzyme thymidine kinase, TK1, a protein that is elevated in the blood when there is increased cell turnover. A growing tumor has a high cell turnover and TK1 leaks out into the blood. With TK 210 ELISA oncologists can thus monitor how cancer patients are responding to treatment, among other things.

The innovation on which AroCell is based is a patented method for producing antibodies to TK1. TK1 is a tricky molecule and many had previously tried to develop antibodies to it without success.

“It all started back in the 90’s when I wanted to measure TK1 protein levels in cells and sera from patients with various types of cancer,” says Staffan Eriksson, who at the time did his research at Karolinska Institutet (KI) but later moved to SLU in Uppsala.

Together with colleagues at KI he managed to solve the problem. One key to the solution was to develop antibodies not to the whole protein, but only to certain peptide chains that are exposed on the TK1-molecule’s surface. Another was to use chickens for the immunization. The more commonly used species, e.g. mouse or rabbit, were too similar to man and therefore elicited a weak immune response to human TK1.

In 2003 Staffan and his colleagues founded the company, initially called Xi Bao Research AB, Xi Bao being Chinese for “cell”. The background for the exotic name was a close collaboration with other scientists at KI who had Chinese connections. For a couple of years the Swedish company also had a license agreement with a Chinese company started by these scientists in order to produce antibodies in chickens. Eventually this was no longer of interest, as Staffan’s company managed to develop monoclonal antibodies to TK1. The direct Chinese connection disappeared and the company’s name was changed to AroCell AB.

Strategic crossroads

Funding is often a stumbling-block for young companies. UU Holding and SLU Holding both contributed early funding, but like many other young companies AroCell found it hard to attract venture capital a bit further down the road.

“We had reached a stage in our development when we needed to make substantial investments, but we had not come far enough for venture capitalists to get a sufficiently fast return on their investments,” says Per Matsson, who was one of the founders of the company and Chairman of the Board the first couple of years. “So we chose another solution – to go to the stock market.”

In 2011 AroCell was listed on AktieTorget and this proved to be a stroke of luck. Three new share issues have brought in 60 MSEK and today the company has some 2,300 shareholders.

“It’s usually said that the stock market has a short-term focus and wants results fast, but it has worked out very well for us. One important factor has probably been that AroCell operates in an area that it’s easy to communicate about and that most people can relate to. Everyone understands the need for diagnosing cancer,” Per says.

Another important strategic decision was made some years ago, when it was decided to shift the clinical focus from blood cancer to solid tumors, among them the most common types of cancer, cancer of the breast and the prostate. This opened up a much bigger market.

“Whereas in blood cancer you have a small amount of protein that is very active, the opposite is the situation with solid tumors. They contain much protein with low activity,” Staffan says. “Eventually we managed to show that our test also measures inactive TK1 and that it reflects the cell turnover in solid tumors very well.”

Learning points

So what are the most important learning points during the years?

“The general one is that it takes time to develop a complex product like this. Among other things we have seen that unexpected problems tend to pop up when you move from the laboratory to clinical reality. We probably should have collaborated more with health care and involved more patient samples earlier,” Per says.

 “Initially we tried to build up laboratory operations with our own staff,” Staffan says. “But it soon became obvious that our own employees, even if they were very competent, could not be experts in all areas. The need for different competences also varied a lot over time. It proved to be a better solution to bring in external specialists when they were needed.”

Today AroCell has just three employees, but instead some ten consultants closely linked to the company. A European partner is also in charge of important parts of the product development.

“Working with a virtual organization gives us access to specialist competence when we need it and great flexibility,” says Jan Stålemark, who is AroCell’s CEO today.

AroCell now has a CE certified product that is thus approved for marketing. But there is still some work to be done before a great demand for TK 210 ELISA can be expected.

Jan Stålemark, CEO AroCell

“The next milestone is clinical validation,” Jan says.” In order to achieve a commercial success we must have clinical proof describing the utility of the test. We start be selling our product for use in research and clinical studies to start getting sales revenue. A new share issue is also in progress in December 2015 and this will give us the financial muscles needed for the final dash to the market.”

Writer: Thomas Nordanberg