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Liquid Biopsy as an Alternative to Traditional Tissue Biopsy

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Since co-founding Vortex Biosciences in 2012, Elodie Sollier-Christen, PhD has continued to be recognized for her work within the field of microfluidics, her expertise focused on the development of microfluidic devices for biological applications.

Her passion for science, and determination to make a difference to the field of cancer diagnostics has driven her to successfully transform a microfluidic research platform in to a commercial product for liquid biopsy.

Q: What particularly inspired you to pursue a career in science?  

Early in my life we experienced several cancer cases in my family and I was therefore aware of the term ‘cancer’ from a young age. This piqued my interest in medicine early on, particularly how new technologies can support physicians and patients. During my engineering program at Grenoble INP, in France, I learned about microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip concepts. I found the possibility of bringing the lab to; a patient’s bedside, to the field, or to settings with limited resources, really exciting and transformative for the future of medicine. I was lucky, later on, to have the opportunity to focus my PhD work (CEA LETI Minatec) on lab-on-chips for blood sample preparation and pursue this effort with Prof. Dino Di Carlo at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) for my postdoctoral studies. 

Q: How has the area of microfluidics evolved since the beginning of your career, and what impact has this has on your role within the field?

When I started my career, microfluidics for health applications was still marginal and considered more as a fun research tool. The successful commercial transfer of some microfluidic-based medical devices has led to quite an evolution of the field. What was previously just basic research into the potential applications of microfluidics began to translate into real world products that could have a direct impact on both scientific research and diagnostics. This inspired me to take what was a research discovery and transform it in to a valuable product that could directly impact patient care. If I hadn’t seen the success of these other companies I am not sure I would have seen the path to developing and commercializing the VTX-1 Liquid Biopsy System.  Furthermore, these early products provided a roadmap for success – keep the clinician experience in mind and make sure the solution addresses a real market need in the simplest manner.  

Q: You won the 2017 SLAS Innovation award for your presentation entitled “Vortex Technology for fast and label-free isolation of circulating tumor cells from blood samples” Could you give us an overview of your talk and explain the significance of the microfluidic technology featured in the presentation and how it could help improve cancer diagnostics?

A liquid biopsy is an alternative procedure to traditional tissue biopsies. Liquid biopsies include circulating tumor cells (CTCs), ctDNA, and exosomes. Due to the less invasive nature of taking a blood sample, there is significantly less risk to the patient. The scientific community has confirmed that liquid biopsies can enable earlier diagnosis, therapy selection and monitoring of the treatment. Ultimately, this highlights that liquid biopsies are expected to play a critical role in ‘precision medicine’ and prognosis for oncology patients. CTCs are cancer cells that detach from the tumor, enter the blood stream and spread in the body to create metastasis. These are considered the seeds of the cancer spread, which causes 90% of cancer deaths. For such reason, there is a growing interest in CTC isolation and characterization, to provide a real-time vision of the cancer for each patient. 

Several technologies have been developed to accomplish this, but there is still this unmet need for label-free capture of CTCs in a simple, fully-automated manner with the cells being preserved in suspension for various downstream assays. The Vortex technology is ideal for isolating cancer cells from blood. It collects these larger cancer cells based on their size and deformability, but without filters that can get clogged or hold cells. This enables a good CTC recovery, with a very low white blood cell (WBC) contamination, to make accurate and sensitive characterization of the CTCs achievable. Cells are gently handled and remain viable such that the largest amount of information can be obtained. The process is simple, leading to a high level of reproducibility. The isolation is also robust and label-free, requiring no antibodies, chemistry, or difficult to scale processes. Finally, the trapped cells can be easily released into different containers giving a high level of flexibility to the user for the downstream characterization of the CTCs, either for research or clinical use. Ultimately, we believe all these key product features will help clinicians and cancer patients at different time points of their cancer care to improve their outcome.

My presentation at SLAS 2017 described our work to transfer the microfluidic research platform developed in Dino Di Carlo’s Lab at UCLA to a commercial product. I presented some clinical case studies to illustrate the performance and the clinical validation of our platform in terms of CTC recovery efficiency, enrichment purity with a simple and easy workflow. 

Q: Could you tell us more about your current research? Are there any research areas or applications you are yet to explore that you would be eager to investigate in the future?

The VTX-1 instrument was launched in 2017 and is initially marketed to researchers. Our main focus now at Vortex Biosciences is to push the use of CTCs in to the clinic, beyond solely research applications.  We believe CTCs can play an important role, making a significant difference to patients, either at the time of their diagnosis, for therapy selection, for cancer monitoring or for the detection of cancer relapse.

To enable the development of clinical assays using CTCs, our team is collaborating with partners and clinicians, to explore and create validated assays that use the isolated CTCs as the sample input. Current projects are looking at EGFR mutations in lung cancer and in vitro expression of markers important for immunotherapy, such as PD-L1. Part of this work is, and will be, to demonstrate that performing these clinically relevant tests on CTCs is equivalent to using conventional tissue biopsy specimens. 

Q: To date, what would you consider to be your greatest professional achievement?

The professional achievement I am most proud of is to have built the Vortex Biosciences business, gathering a team of enthusiastic and skilled experts all filled with passion for the same vision – to make a difference for cancer patients. Launching our VTX-1 Liquid Biopsy System last year was a tremendous achievement and embodiment of the hard work and dedication from everyone involved over the last few years.  

Q: What can be done to encourage more women to get involved in science?

This is a tough question for me to answer as I have always had a passion for science. I can’t point to any special program or event that resulted in me really becoming inspired by the potential that science offers. I think a lot of the recent attempts to simply help girls and young women understand that they too can be successful in the area of math and science can make a big difference. It seems to me the resources are available, it is more about understanding and reinforcing the power of science, to really change the world. Hopefully as more women truly change the world through science it will inspire others to follow in their footsteps. 

Elodie Sollier-Christen, PhD was speaking to Laura Elizabeth Mason, Science Writer for Technology Networks.