Technology developed at MUSC holds promise for preventing liver cancer

April 02, 2021
Richard Drake sits in his lab and holds a component of the GlycoTyper technology
Dr. Richard Drake and his team recently received investment funding to further develop and commercialize their patent-pending technology to detect liver disease. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

Technology developed by researchers at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center can detect early-stage liver cancer at double the rate obtained with current standard diagnostic tools.

The technology, which is currently only being used for research purposes, is designed to classify how sugars known as glycans change during the development of cancer. If brought to market, the resulting product would be a rapid blood test that could detect liver fibrosis (or scarring) in its earliest stages, allowing time for intervention before the disease progressed to permanent liver damage or liver cancer. The test could also aid providers in determining the current stage of a patient’s liver disease.

A new seed investment from Bruker Corporation, a company that manufactures scientific instruments and diagnostic solutions, will help the researchers to further develop, validate and commercialize the technology, which is known as GlycoTyper. The researchers hope this support will aid them in bringing the test to market for the benefit of patients within the next few years.

GlycoTyper is a patent-pending technology developed at MUSC and is licensed by GlycoPath Inc. from the MUSC Foundation for Research Development.

Richard Drake, Ph.D., Hollings researcher and chief executive officer of GlycoPath Inc., which has licensed the technology, said, “We are excited to partner with Bruker to develop our clinically important glycan profiling technologies and to make GlycoPath products available to customers worldwide. Our analytical technology links the immune response to disease with circulating biomarkers to provide novel diagnostic tools across the spectrum of cancer, infectious disease and aging.”

How it works

The proprietary glycan profiling technology works by first capturing diagnostic glycoproteins from blood using an antibody array slide. The captured glycoproteins are then sprayed with an enzyme that releases the glycans. The glycans that are present on each glycoprotein are analyzed for changes that are associated with liver disease using MALDI imaging mass spectrometry, a laser imaging technique used to find disease biomarkers.

The partnership with Bruker Corporation will link the GlycoTyper technology with Bruker’s precision MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry instrumentation, which will help to accelerate a wider adoption of the approach.

“In the area of liver disease, including liver cancer, GlycoTyper-based analyses were able to detect early-stage cancer at double the rate obtained with the current gold standard markers.”
— Dr. Anand Mehta

What makes the diagnostic assay unique is that it can analyze thousands of proteins from blood or tissue samples quickly, according to the researchers. Current glycan analyses are only able to analyze a small number of proteins at a time, which limits the glycan information that can be collected.

The planned laboratory-developed test would also be unaffected by co-occurring conditions, such as obesity, which are problematic for current diagnostic testing protocols for liver fibrosis.

According to Anand Mehta, Ph.D., Hollings researcher and GlycoPath chief financial officer, GlycoTyper’s ability to analyze thousands of samples quickly demonstrates its potential for use in glycan biomarker studies that extend beyond liver disease and cancer.

“In the area of liver disease, including liver cancer, GlycoTyper-based analyses were able to detect early-stage cancer at double the rate obtained with the current gold standard markers,” said Mehta. “The platform is capable of hundreds to thousands of glycan measurements per day, making it amenable to a wide range of bioanalytical applications in drug development, clinical diagnostics and basic and translational research.”

Addressing a local need

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 4.5 million U.S. adults (nearly 2% of the population) have been diagnosed with liver disease. While the disease typically takes years to develop, it often goes unnoticed until it reaches a later stage, when treatment options are scarce and less effective. If it’s diagnosed early, simple lifestyle changes involving diet, exercise and smoking habits can reverse liver damage, as the organ can repair and regenerate itself.

While GlycoTyper’s abilities could be expanded beyond liver disease and cancer to chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, the researchers hope their initial focus on identifying liver fibrosis will help them to meet a pressing health need of the state.

hand holding a GlycoPath slide in front of a computer monitor 
The GlycoTyper technology could be used to identify chronic conditions beyond liver disease in the future. Photo provided

Hollings researcher and GlycoPath chief scientific officer Peggi Angel, Ph.D., said, “GlycoTyper is proving to be an applicable tool for identifying patients with diseases besides cancer and liver disease. Our unique analytical strategy is highly reproducible and robust, offering a strong foundation for additional clinical tools targeting disease-associated glycan changes.”

Glycans are produced in the liver, making liver disease an easy first target. According to the researchers, using the technology to detect liver cancer is simple compared to other applications they have planned.

In the future, they hope to be able to help clinicians to determine whether any type of cancer is present in the body based on the antibodies that are present. This application could be a useful clinical decision-making tool when clinicians are trying to rule out other diseases.

While antibody array technologies have been around for years, the team believes their novel method for glycan analysis can help to fill critical information gaps that still exist in other analysis methods.

Danielle Scott, Ph.D., chief officer of product development at GlycoPath, who received her graduate degree from MUSC, said, “Although the role of glycans and glycoproteins has been evaluated in cancer for decades, the clinical relevance of these studies has been limited due to a lack of clinical assays. GlycoTyper was developed to directly address the need for a more high-throughput method for protein-specific glycan analysis from biological samples.”