By Patricia B. Mirasol
InterVenn Biosciences, a San Francisco-based healthtech company innovating on early cancer detection, was co-founded by Filipino Aldo Carrascoso, who previously founded digital media platform Jukin Media and blockchain payment system Veem.
InterVenn recently raised US$34 million in Series B funding, led by Anzu Partners and participated in by Genoa Ventures, Amplify Partners, True Ventures, Xeraya Capital, and the Ojjeh family (of McLaren Group fame).
This funding will go toward commercializing the company’s minimally invasive blood test for the early detection of ovarian cancer. The test is undergoing analytical and clinical validation through the InterVenn Ovarian CAncer Liquid (V.O.C.A.L.) trial. Initial results show a more than 90% accuracy rate.
“People always call me a serial entrepreneur because I started four companies in the past twenty years. I’m actually not a serial entrepreneur. I am a serial problem target. Problems keep finding me and I keep getting super frustrated. I just happen to find the best teammates to join me in solving very hard endeavors,” said Mr. Carrascoso.
InterVenn has one mission: to create a world where no one is blindsided by disease.
“Whenever I start a company, it’s always five to seven years before they become mainstream,” Mr. Carrascoso told BusinessWorld.
His track record bears this out: Jukin, founded in 2009, licensed viral videos before “influencers” invaded social media. Veem, meanwhile, was an early proponent of the bitcoin blockchain. “So I hope we are the first of many companies doing many wonderful things with this new science,” he said, referring to his healthtech venture.
DETECTING CANCER EARLY AND ACCURATELY
There is no minimally invasive test at present that can accurately detect ovarian cancer in its early stages, when it is most curable.
InterVenn’s blood test could change that with next-generation glycobiology (or the study of the structure, biosynthesis, and biology of glycans or carbohydrates), instrumentation, and deep machine learning to change the way people diagnose cancer, all with the aim of furthering research towards curing it.
Early detection generally results in a better outlook. When diagnosed and treated in stage 1, the five-year relative survival rate is 92%—yet only about 15% of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in stage 1.
Most ovarian cancer cases now are diagnosed at stage 4, where the survival rate is less than 20%. Adding to the difficulty of the early diagnosis is that the disease’s most common signs and symptoms—bloating and back pain—could also indicate a myriad of other health conditions.
The clinical trial for InterVenn’s ovarian cancer–detecting blood test, which will be available early next year in the US, is ongoing with participants from the US, Australia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The clinical validation of the V.O.C.A.L. biopsy is modeled after an early model built on a Caucasian population sample.
“Everyone thought I was crazy… because we’re different genetically,” Mr. Carrascoso said. “When we tested the Caucasian-framed algorithm on Filipinos and Malaysians, the performance increased. The conclusion is: we’re not all that different. We’re all just the same in the eyes of disease.”
‘THE TINDER OF DRUGS’
Immuno-oncology, or the study and development of treatments that take advantage of the body’s immune system to fight cancer, is next in the pipeline for InterVenn.
The biosciences company envisions a world where individuals can be triaged and routed to the right drug, where the right therapy selection tool has the ability to have a nearly 100% predictive value for people who are going to respond to certain drugs.
“We want to be the Tinder of drugs,” said Mr. Carrascoso. “We can match your phenotype to the right drug and technically direct you to the cure.”
This endeavor is a personal one for Mr. Carrascoso, whose mother died of breast cancer in the 1990s. Another close relative was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2016; a cousin died from triple-negative breast cancer from the wrong immunotherapy regimen this year.
“When people ask me, what is InterVenn for you? It is not a business,” he said.
When Mr. Carrascoso had a related diagnostic test done at the laboratory of his co-founder and fellow Filipino Carlito Lebrilla, a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Davis, and a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Mr. Carrascoso discovered it took 12 months and a roomful of people with PhDs to check one person’s blood sample.
With his experience in software and neural networks, Mr. Carrascoso created a technology for InterVenn that marries mass spectrometry, the only tool precise enough to measure the composition and location of post-translational modifications (or the alteration in the amino acid sequence of the protein after its synthesis), with artificial intelligence powered by large, human-curated datasets.
“Literally, this is a blue-sky opportunity,” said Mr. Carrascoso of the AI that scaled the workflow and data interpretation of mass spectrometry from 12 months to 12 minutes—a 10,000% increase in throughput.
With this technology, a blood test will be able to tell patients—early and accurately—if they will develop a certain type of cancer.
SAVING MILLIONS OF LIVES
The same technology and science used for the ovarian cancer detection test was applied to nearly two other dozen indications—including renal cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, thyroid cancer, melanoma—with reportedly similarly promising detection results.
If the test lives up to its expectations, Mr. Carrascoso said that cancer may eventually become “like a headache.” That’s the dream.
InterVenn has teams in Silicon Valley, California, and Ortigas Center, Pasig, dedicated to its mission of creating a world where no one is blindsided by disease.
The Ortigas-based group is in charge of information technology-related tasks such as engineering, information security, development and operations, and server system administration.
“When someone tells you they’d rather work than sleep because they don’t want to add another moment of misery into another person’s life and family, you know you’ve got a really good team,” said Mr. Carrascoso
“I need this to be successful,” he continued. “I couldn’t help my mom. I wanted to become a doctor. But then someone told me, tumulong ka na lang ng duktor [why not just help doctors]. People need to know what InterVenn is doing because when we become successful, the amount of lives we are going to save will be in the millions of people. I don’t say that lightly.”