The Backstory: Base Genomics and their mission to defeat cancer through early diagnosis

November 3, 2020

Last week we were delighted to announce that our portfolio company, Base Genomics, has been acquired by molecular diagnostics company Exact Sciences – a leader in cancer detection – for $410 million.

Early detection is crucial to increasing cancer survival rates. Cancer Research UK has reported that in the UK alone, around 52,000 cases of four common cancers – lung, breast, bowl and prostate – are spotted too late each year. This not only costs the UK’s NHS an extra £150 million to treat, it also causes extraordinary suffering. A breakthrough in early detection would have transformative effects not just on the lives of countless individuals, but on entire healthcare systems.

Exact Sciences’ acquisition of Base Genomics marks a major leap towards a new era of predictive medicine. Together, they look forward to developing a multi-cancer early detection blood test. This could ultimately be used to diagnose cancer before symptoms develop and administered as part of regular health checks.

It could be one of the most impactful oncology products in history, making late cancer detection a thing of the past, saving more lives, and sparing unnecessary suffering.

At OSI we were proud to act as the catalyst bringing together the entrepreneurial expertise, science, financial support and commercial know-how to create Base Genomics. We couldn’t be happier to see a team and scientific discovery we’ve invested in, since before the company’s inception, achieve the partnership and financial backing they need to realise their vision. This is one of the largest diagnostics deals of its kind in UK history.

But to truly appreciate the significance of this occasion, we have to start at the beginning.

Developing a breakthrough intervention for early stage cancer detection

In 2018, Ollie Waterhouse joined OSI as an Entrepreneur in Residence. His ambition was to build a transformative diagnostics company based on cutting-edge Oxford research. Being connected with OSI allowed Ollie to explore the University’s research freely and, within 24 hours of arriving, Ollie had tracked down a world-leader in translational medicine and clinical genomics, Professor Anna Schuh.

Anna’s group was instrumental in establishing the groundwork for the 100,000 Genome Project and Genomics England. As their understanding of the complexity of the cancer genome increased, it became clear that a paradigm shift in cancer care was vital to improving survival rates. One of the essential pillars of this effort has to be earlier diagnosis – and to do so simply through, for example, routine blood tests.

The early detection of cancer via a simple blood test is a game changing idea. But Anna’s research was focussed purely on genetic sequencing. Ollie was convinced the solution lay in epigenetics.

This next phase of the search led Ollie to the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Oxford where he met Dr Chunxiao Song, Principal Investigator, and Dr Yibin Liu, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, inventors of TAPS (TET-assisted pyridine borane sequencing) a new epigenetic sequencing technology.

Epigenetic sequencing detects methylated DNA – or DNA that has changed due to environmental, rather than solely genetic factors that may be a precursor to cancerous cells.

Current epigenetic sequencing techniques are costly and come with frequent errors. Yibin and Chunxiao’s breakthrough invention gives sensitive, accurate, and efficient results. Unlike previous industry standard technologies TAPS does not degrade DNA, meaning that significantly more DNA is available for sequencing. It also better retains sequence complexity, cutting sequencing costs in half and enabling simultaneous epigenetic and genetic analysis.

With TAPS, detecting cancer at a much earlier stage than previously thought could become possible at scale, and could one day be done using a simple blood test administered as part of regular health checks.

This was the ground-breaking science that Ollie was searching for.

Base Genomics takes off 

An intense period of due diligence then ensued. Ollie spent time with leading academics, clinicians, investors and industry executives worldwide, deeply investigating the technology whilst simultaneously creating a buzz of excitement around its potential impact.

In February 2019, the research team published their first paper on TAPS in Nature Biotechnology. It came out with a bang, attracting a significant amount of attention.

Anna joined Ollie, Chunxiao and Yibin and the team grew quickly, adding Vincent Smith, an industry veteran in genomic product development and former Illumina VP, as its Chief Technology Officer and Paul McEwan and Narges Baniasadi – successful genomics entrepreneurs – as advisors.

Base Genomics was announced to the world in June 2020 with an oversubscribed funding round, led by OSI, of $11 million.

Four months later, they have now found the perfect partner to supercharge development of their technology and make late detection of cancer a thing of the past.

Investing in the future of Oxford

We’re beyond excited, this new partnership with Exact Sciences – a leader in early cancer detection – will fuel Base Genomics’ clinical and commercial development, boosting their ability to acquire clinical samples and run patient trials.

Crucially, Exact will continue to build on the Base Genomics team here in Oxford, creating a world leading research centre for early stage cancer detection. This is a major milestone not just for Base Genomics, but for Oxford University and the city. It builds on Oxford’s renowned research legacy, while further establishing it as a leading science and technology ecosystem and home for entrepreneurs.

It is our mission and privilege to work with Oxford’s academics and entrepreneurs to build companies that can translate incredible science into real-world impact. Base Genomics’ journey is a demonstration of what can be achieved when our model works at its best.

Our warmest congratulations to Ollie, Anna, Chunxiao, Yibin and the rest of their inspiring team on this exciting and hard-earned milestone.

If you would like to learn more about Base Genomics’ ground breaking research read Chunxiao’s “Behind the paper” article for Nature Research here.

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