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Shining a light on cancer
December 2009
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—After collaborating for two years on the development of diagnostic tools that predict how patients may react to cancer treatments, researchers at Eli Lilly & Co. and scientists at GE Global Research have taken the wraps off a significant achievement in their work—the creation of a tissue-based, biomarker technology that for the first time can simultaneously map more than 25 proteins in tumors at the sub-cellular level.  
According to the companies, who discussed the breakthrough as well as their plans to extend their collaboration Oct. 21 during a news conference at GE's Healthymagination Showcase in New York, the technology birthed by their partnership is an important step in the development of personalized and more effective treatments.
The technology addresses a key limitation of current pathology methods. Currently, a diagnosis of cancer and the decision of which therapy to prescribe are based on the histology of the tumor and, in some cases, the expression of just one or two biomarkers inside the patient's tumor. The new molecular pathology technology developed in GE's Biosciences laboratories gives researchers a "visual map" of the tissue sample, allowing them to see a cancer cell's comprehensive biomarker signaling pathway, and the interplay of signaling networks inside the tumor.  
By unlocking this crucial information that has until now been hidden from doctors, and enabling researchers to map a tumor's complex biomarker network, scientists involved in drug discovery and the clinicians who make treatment decisions will be better equipped to identify the most effective cancer therapies for patients, while avoiding those that are not as effective—saving time, money and providing a better patient experience, says Dr. Jeremy Graff, a senior research advisor at Lilly.
"We have used the pathology technology that is currently available for almost 100 years now," Graff says. "With current technology, you look through a microscope onto a slide and see a section of tissue and see only one biomarker at a time. But looking at one biomarker at a time isn't getting the job done. Understanding one marker is not nearly enough when you're trying to understand a patient's tumor and all of the complexity within that tumor. By getting that type of granular detail, we can better understand what is going on in each person's tumor, and that is how we plan to match the patient to the right drug."  
Ensuring that patients get the specific therapies they need could dramatically impact efficacy and survival rates, Graff adds.  
"Sometimes with cancer, we over-treat patients, or we treat patients in the early stages of the disease who may not need a particular treatment at all," he says. "If we apply what we learn from the patients' tissues at the time of diagnosis, we can say whether or not we believe the disease requires aggressive therapy. If the patient has malignant tissue, we'll also be able to tell whether or not it will stay malignant."  
For Lilly, the mapping technology has applicability and benefits beyond pre-clinical research. By using the advanced molecular pathology imaging tools developed in this collaboration, companies like Lilly can use the complex molecular signatures within patient tumors to design clinical research programs to study if these biomarkers can predict which patients are most likely to respond to a particular targeted therapy. Selecting the proper patients early, using these advanced technologies, could reduce the patient population sizes necessary for conducting clinical trials and will substantially shorten clinical development timelines. In turn, these changes should also lead to a reduction in the cost of drug development, Graff says.  
"The technology will allow us to hone in on the group most likely to respond to a treatment, so we anticipate seeing enhanced results in clinical trials," he says. "Ideally, this will speed up clinical trials because we won't have to accrue as many patients and invest as much time and funds in overall development. This would drive down costs precipitously."  
GE believes that the technology made possible by its collaboration with Lilly may give doctors the most powerful tools available at their disposal, says Fiona Ginty, a project leader for molecular pathology at GE's research center in Niskayuna, N.Y. GE researchers with specialties in biology, bioinformatics, optics, fluidics, chemistry and mechanical engineering have built a prototype system capable of staining, washing and re-staining tissue samples for study under a digital microscope. The system combines image analysis of cancerous cells and structures with GE's patented visualization tools to provide a color map of protein concentrations within the sample.
"We have leveraged the expertise at our research center that we previously applied to aviation and other types of technological applications at GE and brought it to bear on a biology problem requiring computational skills," Ginty says. "We kept this technology internal to GE while we were developing it over the last few years, and the partnership with Lilly was a great opportunity to give us feedback on what is relevant from a drug discovery standpoint. Working with the samples Lilly has provided, we also developed the bioinformatics tools to quantify and interpret the data."  
Ultimately, GE hopes that its technology, advanced as a result of this collaboration, may lead to the ability to identify the stem cells within a tumor that researchers believe control cancer, Ginty says.  
"There are many examples today where this kind of approach is being used to predict patients' response to drugs, as well as a shift to genomic analysis, which requires the destruction of a sample," she says. "Our approach is the same, but we are keeping the tissue intact as well as the information within that tissue related to patient outcome. By doing so, we may be able to discover more innovative, targeted therapies for the treatment of patients with cancer."
To date, the new technology has been tested successfully on colon and prostate cancer tissue samples and is believed to be applicable to all types of cancer. Lilly and GE have extended their research agreement to include the study of four Lilly oncology molecules that are currently in the company's development pipeline. While the technology is expected to help in the analysis of all cancers, the two companies will perform specific investigations in breast, ovarian, lung and possibly gastric cancers. The companies have not disclosed the financial aspects of their 50-50 venture.  

GE launches $250 million Healthymagination Fund
New equity investment fund to invest in high-potential healthcare technology companies  
FAIRFIELD, Conn.—GE also announced in late October the formation of the GE Healthymagination Fund, a new equity fund that will make investments in highly promising healthcare technology companies. The fund will invest in companies globally that have innovative diagnostic, IT and life sciences technologies aligned with the strategic objectives of GE's Healthymagination initiative. The fund will also support healthcare companies developing innovative and unique business models and services.  
The formation of the fund is part of GE's $6 billion Healthymagination initiative, a global commitment to deliver better healthcare to more people at lower cost. The fund will target three broad areas for investment: broad-based diagnostics, including imaging, home health, patient monitoring, molecular diagnostics, pathology, novel imaging agents and other technologies for disease diagnosis; healthcare information technology, including electronic medical records, clinical information systems, healthcare information exchanges and value-added data services; and life sciences, including tools for research and development in biopharmaceuticals and stem cells, and technologies for manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals and vaccines.  
The fund will draw on capabilities from across GE Healthcare, GE Capital and GE Global Research, and will have a global footprint.
Code: E120902



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