Innovation in Diagnosis

The Early Detection of Cancer Challenge invites Alberta businesses to create new tools for early detection and diagnosis

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Illustration by Pete Ryan

According to Alberta Health Services, an estimated 19,865 new cancer cases are expected in 2017 (approximately the same number as the entire population of the city of Chestermere). There is no time like the present to inject dollars and time into one of the key ways of slashing those daunting numbers — early detection.

The province’s Early Detection of Cancer Challenge is poised to do just that. “In general terms, the earlier you get diagnosed, the better the prognosis is,” says Dr. Megan Lee, director of program investment at Alberta Cancer Foundation. “Traditionally, industry investments have been in therapeutics, but we’re realizing we have to invest in early diagnostic as well. It improves survival rates and quality of life to detect cancer as soon as possible.”

The challenge is an opportunity for Alberta technology companies to develop market-competitive technology that would significantly enhance patient outcomes. The winning proposal has access to up to $2 million to bring the product to market.

The initiative came about as a result of conversations among the three key stakeholders — Alberta Cancer Foundation, Alberta Innovates and DynaLIFE Medical Labs. The three decided their individual goals (positive patient impact, economic development and diversity, and delivery of diagnostic services respectively) could align beautifully into an impressive winwin- win for Albertans.

Alberta Innovates also directs the administration of the challenge, which launched on May 1, 2017. A webinar was held with stakeholders and potential applicants on May 15. By June 21, it had received seven opportunities.

“It was fun and easy up until that point,” says Dr. Raja Mita, director of small business innovation with Alberta Innovates. Whittling them down was the hard part, so he and his fellow stakeholders relied on a dedicated review panel of external experts to narrow the field.

First, they determined which proposals were technologically viable. They considered the competition and what already existed. What was the probability this technology would succeed in the marketplace within the prescribed window of three to four years? And, if it did succeed, could the team be assured of patient and economic impact?

“We cut out 70 to 80 per cent at that point,” says Mita.

The next evaluation category was business readiness. They considered whether the company had financial projections for the item, a sales strategy and customers to ultimately sell the product to? They also examined the company’s ownership and management structure and history with a “fine-tooth comb” for financial, legal and ethical viability.

Based on these calculations, the review panel suggested a candidate. The three partners made the final decision, which will be announced by October.

This is not the end of the story. At this point, another phase begins, which might be the most difficult — the one that actually brings the product to the marketplace.

“Our goal is to ensure whatever technology we end up choosing is being developed with an end goal of positive impact for Alberta patients,” says Lee.

Medical diagnostic devices are approved through Health Canada, in some cases, not all, so those regulatory checks and balances need to be in place. This is a necessary, but complex and resource-intensive task, says Mita. Plus, the $2 million, although generous, might fall short of bringing a tool to the shelves.

Ultimately, nine out of 10 initiatives will fail. “It is a risky endeavour,” he says. “If we do not meet the milestones, we will shut it down.”

Mita and his crew will help the company develop a detailed project and a risk- mitigation plan and will provide mentors to support every step.

Mita is optimistic and believes that this integrated model — with the three stakeholders pulling together for the greater good — stands a very good chance.

The Goals of the Early Detection of Cancer Challenge

1. Affect patients in a positive way by detecting cancer earlier. Early detection improves treatment results and quality of life and reduces morbidity and mortality rates.

2. Diversify the economy by encouraging business development in the health-care sector, thereby bringing jobs, investment and an economic boost to Alberta.

Why Early Detection Matters

According to Alberta Health Services, patients whose cancers are diagnosed earlier, in stage I or II, have a higher survival rate than those diagnosed at later stages.

For example, colorectal cancer patients diagnosed in stage I or II have a more than 90 per cent chance of survival three years after diagnosis as compared to someone the same age who is cancer free.

Similarly, breast cancer patients diagnosed in stage I or II have a 98 per cent survival rate and only a 36 per cent survival rate when diagnosed in stage IV.

Thanks, in part, to early detection and screening programs, cancer mortality rates in Alberta have fallen on average by 2.1 per cent annually between 2004 and 2014.

Visit screeningforlife.ca to learn more.

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