Gregor Diagnostics, a Madison startup working on a new way to screen men for prostate cancer, is getting a $900,000 financial boost from investors around the country, paving the way for the company’s first patient study.
Gregor, founded in 2016, is developing a home test kit for prostate cancer — believed to be the first of its kind. Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths for men in the U.S., the National Cancer Institute says.
Tobias Zutz, founder, CEO and currently the sole employee of Gregor, said checking a semen sample for certain biomarkers should be a more informative analysis than a blood test, which is the most common way to screen for prostate cancer now.
Much like Exact Sciences’ Cologuard home test kit analyzes stool samples for colorectal cancer, Gregor’s test aims to look at the fluid closest to the source of the disease.
“The thesis is: Some biomarkers won’t be detectable in blood but will be detectable in seminal fluid early on,” Zutz said.
Gregor Diagnostics licensed technology from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation last fall that involves biomarkers discovered in the lab of Dr. David Jarrard at the UW Carbone Cancer Center and in the UW Pathology TRIP Laboratory by Dr. Wei Huang, in collaboration with Jarrard.
Gregor also is working to license additional technology from another source, Zutz said.
A main goal is to differentiate the prostate cancer cells that are aggressive from those that are slow-growing.
“If you can make that diagnosis early ... then you can put the people with the indolent cancer in an active surveillance program and not have them exposed to a biopsy and aggressive treatments,” Zutz said.
With the new money, Zutz plans to hire two research scientists and to contract with an outside research group to recruit 200 patients — half with prostate cancer — at multiple sites, collect samples and analyze how effective Gregor Diagnostics’ test is in identifying the cancers and in determining how aggressive they are.
If the results are significant, several more studies will have to be conducted before applying for federal approval. Zutz said if all goes well, it could be four to five years from now before the prostate cancer test goes to market.
Zutz said the test kit would let the samples be collected at home and sent to a lab for analysis, similar to Cologuard.
How likely would men be to do that?
“That was definitely one of my first questions,” Zutz said.
He conducted an online survey of 400 men, ages 50 to 70, in 2016. “Sixty-five percent would take our test and 21 percent would still do the PSA,” he said. The PSA test measures the level of prostate-specific antigen in the patient’s blood. An elevated level can be associated with prostate cancer.
Following lead of Exact Sciences
There’s a good reason why there are similarities between Gregor Diagnostics’ concept and Madison-based Exact Sciences Corp. Zutz worked at Exact Sciences from 2010 to 2015 as part of the research-and-development team.
As of June, Exact Sciences had 1,500 employees, including about 1,100 in the Madison area, with openings for several hundred more.
“To win the war on cancer, we will need more tests that accurately detect the disease at its earliest, most treatable stages,” Exact spokesman JP Fielder said. “It’s exciting to see companies focusing on early detection, notably for the deadliest forms of cancer.”
A native of Manitowoc, Zutz, 34, earned his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and genetics and his master’s in biotechnology, both at UW-Madison.
Gregor Diagnostics went through gener8tor’s gBETA mentorship program in Madison in 2016, nabbed second place in the Elevator Pitch Olympics for startups at the Early Stage Symposium in Madison in 2016, and was chosen for Health Wildcatters, a health care accelerator program in Dallas, in 2017.
Not only did Health Wildcatters pump $30,000 into each of its participating startups, the program introduced Zutz to some of his company’s eventual investors, such as Green Park & Golf Ventures, a Dallas investment firm. Carl Soderstrom, a partner in the firm, said he looks for “opportunities to make a difference in the world.”
“When Gregor Diagnostics is successful in this venture, it will truly be a breakthrough in the way prostate cancer is diagnosed, leading to better treatment and outcomes around the world,” Soderstrom said.
First Round Capital, of San Francisco, also led the investment, with participation by WARF, Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg of Flatiron Health, and additional financing from Health Wildcatters.
Gregor is housed at the 100state co-working space for now, but Zutz hopes to move to a laboratory and scale up the company when the study results are in.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity” for this type of product, Zutz said.