Part II: Liver cancer or liver damage? | The making of a proof-of-concept diagnostic system

Project Description

Clinical diagnostics

 Approximately 29 million people in Europe suffer from chronic liver disease. This condition carries a higher risk of liver cancer. SG Papertronics, together with Omnigen B.V. and Levels Diagnostics, hopes to develop a test to detect early liver cancer among these patients. “We are trying to take a first step in breaking the barriers of complex and scarce liver cancer screening.” 

It was during his PhD in microfluidics that CEO and co-founder of SG Papertronics, Maciej Grajewski, became fascinated by the miniaturisation of chemical assays and lab equipment. “At one point, I decided that I wanted to try to build a start-up around it”, Grajewski says. “A couple of years later, I met Richard, who was just finishing his Master in Small Business and Entrepreneurship. He decided to join SG Papertronics as one of the co-founders as well.” 

The right partner 

What started out as a scientific fascination, is now a company making on-site chemical tests available for those not necessarily lab trained. SG Papertronics wants to give everyone an equal chance to easily test and analyse a broad range of compounds. COO and co-founder of SG Papertronics, Richard Rushby, illustrates: “We are trying to democratize lab testing for a variety of industries. This will especially work well for medium enterprises, as the currently available solutions are far too expensive.” 

And then, one day, the telephone rang. “It was Coen Breedveld from Levels Diagnostics who called me about a project focussing on liver damage”, Grajewski says. “He was looking for a partner that can build diagnostics devices and single-use tests.” Breedveld found the right partner in SG Papertronics, with Grajewski also having experience in the field. “As a postdoc at the University of Groningen, I mainly worked on liver tissue. So I knew one or two things about the liver before we joined this project.” 

A biomarker-based diagnostic system 

Rewinding to September 2020, the consortium of SG Papertronics, Levels Diagnostics and Omnigen started out their project. At the end of this two-year project, Levels Diagnostics wants to obtain a panel of several dozen protein biomarkers that can distinguish early stage liver cancer from severe liver damage. Omnigen will provide the necessary data analyses, and SG Papertronics is the brains behind the development of the actual diagnostic system. 

“The two main things we are bringing into this project are the hardware and the initial direction of travel for the platform where the diagnostic test will be embedded”, Rushby explains. “We are also able to indicate which biomarkers are possible to detect within the diagnostic system.” “Once we are given a final direction from the other parties on the selected protein biomarkers”, Grajewski adds, “we can further adapt the test in such a way that it will work within our device.” 

A few drops 

At the current stage, SG Papertronics has developed a friendly-user readout device. “The device is extremely easy to use”, an excited Rushby says. “By automating the protocol and providing all the chemicals in an enclosed single-use pod solution, the user is safe from any potential chemical risks. This solution will also reduce the chances of users impacting the test protocol and causing an error by doing so.” 

Rushby continues: “What we need from the user’s side, is a few drops of serum. The user then opens the pod and pours the serum into the top by using a pipette or a beaker. You then put the lid back on the pod, place it inside the machine and put the safety cap on top. From an app, you can select the test. You press the go-button and then all you have to do is wait for a maximum of fifteen minutes.”

Een paar druppels 

The right people at the right time 

When the project will end in a year from now, SG Papertronics hopes to have developed a proof-of-concept diagnostic tool based on the identified biomarkers that have the potential to distinguish between early liver cancer and liver damage. “We want to have enough evidence to justify why we think these are the applicable markers and a test that will show these markers in a consistent and accurate manner”, Rushby says. 

“It must be kept in mind that this is an early stage project”, Grajewski emphasizes. “However much we would love to roll out devices to advance liver cancer screening with the current funding, that is not going to happen. But with a proof-of-concept in hand and other investors deciding to join in the future, we can seriously look at how we can get through the clinical approval process. Overall, it is a super ambitious project. But with high risk comes high reward.” 

If the parties succeed in their goals, they will be one step closer in breaking the barriers of complex and scarce liver cancer screening. “Liver cancer is the sixth most prevalent cancer in the world. With this test, we want to give patients with liver damage an early warning that he or she needs to see an oncologist. It is about getting patients in front of the right people at the right time.” 

The OPERA: nOvel rapid livER Assay project is co-funded by a MIT R&D grant from the province Zuid-Holland. Curious about what else SG Papertronics does? Click here. 

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