For Dr Bakre Sparing Breast Cancer Patients from Chemotherapy has been a Life Calling

CanAssist-Breast, a test developed by OncoStem Diagnostics, identifies breast cancer recurrence at an early stage

For Dr Manjiri Bakre, 48, founding OncoStem Diagnostics was driven by a personal experience. Within two years of diagnosis a close friend passed away at 30 due to breast cancer. “Neither she nor any of us were aware of how aggressive her disease was. This made me realize that we don’t diagnose the disease enough and we need to know the tumor biology in detail to understand the progression and aggressiveness of the disease. This will empower the clinician and the patient to understand their disease better and help plan an ‘informed’ treatment,” says Dr Bakre. 

Following a PhD in Cell Biology at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and two post-doctoral fellowships in the US (Mt Sinai School of Medicine, New York City and Moores Cancer Center, University of California, San Diego) Dr Bakre worked in Singapore and India before incorporating OncoStem Diagnostics. 

Each year about 150,000 women are detected with breast cancer in India. Currently, there are no affordable tests to predict the risk of cancer recurrence. As a result, patients with low risk of recurrence are often over-treated and bear the toxic effects of chemotherapy treatment that reduces quality of life. 

“Chemotherapy is known to benefit only a minority (~<15%) of patients with early stage disease.  It is expensive, has huge toxic side effects can reduce the ‘quality of life’ (QOL) of the patient substantially. 

We are trying to solve the problem of accurately assessing the risk of cancer recurrence among early stage cancer patients that will help them plan optimum chemotherapy treatment,” explains Dr Bakre. 

CanAssist-Breast, a test developed by OncoStem, identifies the risk of breast cancer recurrence at an early stage. The test is performed on surgically removed tumor sample of the patient.  The test is performed only once for each patient after surgery to assess risk of recurrence and thus aids in deciding on treatment option of the chemotherapy.

“CanAssist-Breast can potentially spare over 60,000 breast cancer patients in India and about 1 million patients worldwide every year from the severe side effects and unnecessary costs of chemotherapy,” said Dr Bakre.

OncoStem has raised $9 million from Sequoia Capital and Artiman Ventures. The funds were primarily used over the last six years to develop and validate the test in the laboratory, to get all the global accreditations required to launch the test in India and surrounding countries.

“We will raise more funds in near future. India has a reported 150,000 new cases of breast cancer every year. This is a highly under-reported number. Our target market will be early stage breast cancer patients which is a subset of the above amounting to 60,000-70,000 patients a year”.

On the business front Dr Bakre says her company forms hospital tie-ups to reach out to oncologists and expand specialist network ultimately to form a large diagnostic chain throughout the country. “We are currently working with 10 hospital partners and two large diagnostic chains in India, SRL and Dr. Lal Path This year we will also offer the test in Southeast Asia and Middle East. We currently have reputed hospitals in the US and Europe who have signed up for the validation of the test.  

Additionally, insurance companies, central and state insurance policies who offer subsidized healthcare to people are also our audience, since there is a significant cost-saving for these agencies by avoiding chemotherapy to patients,” she says.

The misconception that anything reliable can be developed in India has pervaded healthcare diagnostics too. “The most notable challenge has been the lack of trust among Indians for ‘Made in India’ products. It’s really unfortunate, on one hand we complain that all the new drugs and diagnostics developed in the West are expensive but when there is a chance to develop something in India we do not always lend a helping hand. There is minimal support and lack of trust towards those that are developing something new and innovative,” Dr Bakre said. 

She continued on prevalent challenges owing to unsupportive policies, “Working with hospitals in India to develop anything which uses clinical material has been a challenge due to lack of clear guidelines and implementation of the same. OncoStem has managed to come this far only because of a few good hospitals with visionary leaders and excellent clinicians who believe in themselves and in us.

Fundraising has been a huge challenge too-- from government and private sources”.  

Challenges however stands as no bar to future expansion plans of the company. Dr Bakre concluded, “We intend to touch every patient who can potentially be spared of perhaps unwanted chemotherapy treatment in cancer. 

OncoStem is currently working on a second test for breast cancer and similar tests for oral and colorectal cancer. Research is underway towards identifying and characterizing novel drug targets for breast and oral cancer.”

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