Many types of cancer metastasise to the brain, but it is very difficult to detect such metastases early enough with current imaging technology. As a result, the treatment of patients is delayed and their prognosis is poor.
With her NAVIGATOR team, Professor Pirjo Laakkonen of the University of Helsinki is developing a tool that could be used to detect brain metastases earlier. There is a demand for such an innovation: the number of cancer patients is growing, while patients live longer thanks to, for example, the considerable advancement of breast cancer therapies.
“When patients live longer, their risk of getting brain metastases increases,” Laakkonen says.
Kat Ginda-Mäkelä, the team’s commercialisation specialist, estimates that 4 to 6 million people worldwide suffer from cancer metastases in the brain. Clinics do not yet have a tool as accurate as NAVIGATOR to detect them.
“It could revolutionise the diagnosis of brain metastases,” Ginda-Mäkelä describes.
NAVIGATOR is a molecule that can be used in PET imaging. It transports the radioisotope used as a marker to the patient’s brain and labels even small metastases so that the doctor can detect them. This enables timely procedures, such as surgery or localised radiotherapy.
NAVIGATOR is a major improvement over current PET imaging molecules. According to Laakkonen, the most typical of these contains glucose, which is abundantly used by brain cells, and thus makes diagnosis harder.
“This way, most of the brain cells appear illuminated in PET images.”
Laakkonen and her group have studied brain tumours and the spread of cancer for a long time. One of their main interests has been brain cancer cells that leave the original tumour. While studying them, the team discovered the NAVIGATOR molecule together with their collaborator, Professor Xiang-Guo Li of the University of Turku’s PET Centre.
In hospitals, NAVIGATOR would be easy to integrate for use: the molecule is designed to be injected, and can be used in many clinics that already have PET imaging facilities. The team has received Research to Business funding from Business Finland for the preparation of commercialisation.
“Now is a good time to start introducing solutions for early-stage diagnosis,” Ginda-Mäkelä states.
In the future, the number of patients with cancer metastases is likely to increase.
As the first target group, the team has outlined patients with brain metastases derived from breast and lung cancers and melanomas. According to Laakkonen, the tool can also potentially be used in diagnosing lung and bone metastases as well as many primary tumours. The innovation could help more than a million patients in Europe and the United States.
In addition, the NAVIGATOR molecule is highly flexible. The team estimates that that it can be used also in targeted drug and radiotherapies where the molecule could deliver drugs to cancer cells.
“NAVIGATOR can be easily modified to become a therapeutic tool, so the possibilities for supporting a wider group of patients are great,” Ginda-Mäkelä describes.
The two-year Research to Business project started in the beginning of 2023. During the project, the team plans to validate the NAVIGATOR molecule as a diagnostic tool for various metastases and primary tumours as well as a tool for targeted radiotherapy. The first patent application has already been filed.
The business model and target market will also be crystallised. According to Ginda-Mäkelä, NAVIGATOR’s customers could be manufacturers of radiopharmaceuticals as well as clinics.
“We are very interested in establishing a spinout,” Laakkonen states.
Recently, NAVIGATOR was accepted in the SPARK business coaching programme. Going forward, the team wants to talk with potential partners who can help in testing the innovation and entering the radiotherapy market. Establishing connections with investors is also on the agenda.
“We want to hear about their expectations so that we know what we must take into account.”
Although numerous cancers metastasise to the brain, current methods often fail to detect them at an early stage. In consequence, when these metastases are eventually diagnosed, effective treatment options are limited.
NAVIGATOR offers doctors a new tool for the early detection of brain metastases. As a result, the cancer can be treated earlier and more effectively. The NAVIGATOR molecule may also be suitable as a tool for targeted drug and radiotherapies.
NAVIGATOR’s customers could include companies that manufacture radiopharmaceuticals as well as clinics. The team will crystallise the business model during the Research to Business project. The aim is to set up a spinout.
The team is happy to talk with all potential partners, investors and mentors who can help move the project forward.
Contact the Navigator team: Navigator@helsinki.fi