Making it Work: Medical start-up develops new early test for prostate cancer

UCD spin-out EpiCapture has developed a groundbreaking method to avoid unnecessary invasive biopsies and treatments

Dr Antoinette Perry: Urine ‘liquid gold’ for cancer detection. Picture by Fergal Phillips

Every year, up to five million biopsies are carried out to check the presence of prostate cancer in men. The process is conducted via trans-rectal needles in a procedure that is often difficult for patients.

Worse, the majority of these operations are unnecessary, because some of those who undergo them have only mild forms of cancer which do not require further treatment. The problem is that there is currently no accurate way of detecting which men need the biopsy and which men don’t.

EpiCapture, a medical start-up freshly spun out of University College Dublin, believes it has come up with a way to detect prostate cancer earlier and rule out the need for more severe treatments. The test could vastly improve the management of a disease that causes more than 300,000 deaths worldwide annually.

Founded by Dr Antoinette Perry, an associate professor at the university, EpiCapture has developed a new type of urine test which offers accurate information on whether patients need a biopsy.

It searches the urine for six different flags known as epigenetic biomarkers that give a strong indication of whether the disease is present in an individual’s DNA. Those who have aggressive forms of prostate cancer then go for a biopsy, but those who don’t can skip the procedure.

“Most men who develop prostate cancer will never get sick from it, and might not even know they ever had it,” Perry said. “But the treatment options can bring substantial, life-changing side effects like incontinence or impotence. So if a man doesn’t need to be treated for prostate cancer, then all the better.”

Perry has worked in the prostate field for more than 20 years, and now runs a lab that investigates both prostate and ovarian cancer. The scientists who work in her lab are also seeking to develop a testing solution for ovarian cancer, which Perry said was a “very, very different problem”. That product is at academic project stage, whereas the prostate cancer urine test is on the way to commercialisation. Those in the field, Perry said, were acutely aware of the need for better solutions in the area.

“The challenge was: we need tests to detect aggressive prostate cancer,” she said. “We’re already pretty good at catching all cancers, but what we don’t need is to contribute to the problem of over-diagnosis. And that was where EpiCapture was born.”

The firm was registered with the Companies Registration Office in August, and aims to raise several million in a seed funding round by next summer.

“Our goal is to have the test on the market by early 2024,” Perry said, noting that EpiCapture would lodge separate applications for regulatory approval in Europe and the US before then.

“I’d love to see us deliver EpiCapture to market, and to have it available for patients in the EU, in the next few years.

“We want to demonstrate that the concept works, and become a platform company that can still focus on research and development alongside the commercial side. We don’t see ourselves offering large-scale testing – we’re more focused on commercialising the research that comes out of our lab.”