About Predica Diagnostics
- Founders: Marco de Boer & William Leenders
- Founded in: 2019
- Employees: 3
- Money raised: loans from RedMedTech ventures and MIT; 250.000 and 20.000 euros
- Ultimate goal: Take a leading role in cervical cancer prevention and use the developed test also for other types of cancer
Start-up Predica Diagnostics joins the fight against the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that can cause cervical cancer. By means of a test that not only shows the virus but also measures its activity, Predica hopes to be able to diagnose women more effectively and also prevent overtreatment. At the moment it is still a small business in one of the buildings near Radboud University Nijmegen, but there are big plans. “Ultimately, we want to play a leading role in cervical cancer prevention worldwide”, says managing director Marco de Boer.
William Leenders, a researcher at Radboud University and scientific director, has founded Predica Diagnostics together with de Boer. The aim of the start-up is to develop and market a test that not only demonstrates the HPV virus but also measures its carcinogenic activity.
Human Papillomavirus is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the Netherlands. Estimates from the RIVM indicate that 80 to 90 percent of the population will be infected with the virus during their lives. Worldwide, 500,000 women get cervical cancer every year, half of whom die.
In the Netherlands, women between the ages of 30 and 60 receive an invitation every five years to have a smear taken from the cervix that is tested for the virus. Nowadays this can also be done by means of a self-test that a woman can do at home and have it sent for an HPV-test. “This test looks for the presence of the virus”, says Leenders. “It is a very sensitive measurement and about 10 percent of all women are tested positive for this highly contagious virus. Women who are tested positive still have to go to the doctor for a smear, after which they are referred to a gynecologist in case of a positive result. But the virus does not always cause cancer. Leenders: “Of course, you also have your immune system. In 95 percent of the cases the body cleans up this virus itself, you can’t predict that yet.”
The test that Predica Diagnostics develops can show with more certainty whether the virus will actually cause cancer. This reduces the need for women to see a doctor for a ‘false alarm’ and that can cause a lot of headaches. “No fuss if it’s not necessary, that’s actually the motto of our company”, says Leenders.
What is it like to start a business in the middle of a pandemic?
De Boer: “Apart from a few months’ delay, I don’t see any negative effects. Diagnostics was a dirty word for investors before COVID. Like: you can’t make that much money with that, it’s not that important. But now, people understand that diagnostics are essential to prevent illness. I now see that a lot more money goes to diagnostics because people realize that prevention is very important.”
How does the test work?
Leenders: “The test that we develop is based on a standard HPV smear that women can take themselves at home; the doctor’s smear can also be used, as long as it contains cells. We measure the RNA of the virus, not the DNA, which is what current population research is doing. The RNA makes the proteins that provide the functional activity of the virus. So it is only when the virus has infected your cells and makes RNA that such a virus becomes potentially dangerous. That’s what we measure.” With the method developed by Predica Diagnostics, they can analyze hundreds of samples simultaneously. With machine learning, you can ultimately have the computer predict the risk of a woman actually developing cancer.
How did you come up with this idea?
Leenders: “This is a further development of a technology that already existed. The test we’re doing was already available for DNA analyses, and we extended it to RNA.” He initially developed this test for brain tumors, but when it turned out that the test could also measure the RNA of the HPV virus, the focus shifted to RNA.
What phase are you in?
De Boer: “We are starting up. We have set up our team, Hans van Leeuwen is chairman of the advisory board and Menno Rasing is our first colleague at the lab. We have just concluded a licensing agreement with the Radboudumc, which gives us exclusive rights to the technology developed by William. As of July 1st, our lab opened and we are attracting investors.” Radboudumc is already a shareholder in the company. From the RedMedTech Discovery Fund, a foundation in the province of Gelderland that supports start-ups, they have received a loan and through RVO, Predica has received a so-called MIT subsidy to get started in the first place.
How do you want to scale up?
De Boer: “Ultimately we want to become a global leader in cervical cancer prevention. Within two years we want the test to be ready for the European market. We want to have the first prototype ready in a year’s time. Hopefully, in five to seven years, we will be so big that we will either go public, get serious money and grow, or our company will be bought by a large diagnostic company that already works worldwide and takes over the business.”
Does the test have other applications?
“This is cool”, says de Boer, “we are now working on cervical cancer. But William has also looked at lung cancer, kidney cancer, and, for example, brain tumors at an academic level and you could use our technique for that as well. For example, you could look into tumor tissue to see which genes are being expressed and then choose which medication to use.”
Cervical cancer will remain the primary focus for at least the next two years. “For the other applications, we are looking for companies that want to collaborate with us, so that in the future we can help patients not only for cervical cancer but also for other types of cancer. That is our long-term dream.”