Imagine this: you walk into a clinic for an early detection test that identifies biomarkers in your blood to detect potentially life-threatening diseases in their early stages when they are still asymptomatic. In the stylish waiting room, you nibble on a croissant and sip a latte. You almost feel like you are at a spa, not a medical clinic.
This might sound like a Netflix show set in a utopian future, but a Singapore-based company is making this aspect of preventive treatment a reality.
Dr Zhou Lihan, the co-founder and chief executive officer of biotechnology company MiRXES, is leading the charge. In 2019, following seven years of R&D, his company’s first product, GASTROclear, received regulatory approval in Singapore for the early detection of gastric cancer. “Singapore is the first country to develop an early cancer detection test based on RNA,” says Dr Zhou, who co-founded MiRXES in 2014 as a spin-off of A*STAR to commercialise RNA technology and develop accurate multi-cancer early detection solutions.
At present, the company is developing tests for the top eight cancers, including ovarian, prostate, and breast cancers, which account for approximately 70 per cent of cancer cases. It plans to introduce a new test every year to the public. MiRXES is currently conducting clinical trials for lung, colorectal, and breast cancers. Compared to tumour marker tests, which detect cancers at a later stage, its RNA technology allows for an elevated detection accuracy of about 87 per cent for early-stage cancer, says Dr Zhou.
He adds that most cancers are found in stages three or four, with a prognosis of about 20 to 30 per cent. “We are moving towards detecting these cancers in stage one or even earlier, where the prognosis can be 90 per cent or higher. Then, intervention might not be surgery, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy, but rather a change of lifestyle, nutraceuticals, or supplements.”
In June, the company announced that it had raised US$77 million (S$104 million) in Series C funding with investors, such as CR-CP Life Science Fund, Rock Springs Capital and EDBI. This brings the total amount secured by MiRXES to US$120 million, the largest funding to date raised by a Singapore-headquartered cancer diagnostics company.
Dr Zhou is optimistic that the public’s understanding of the need for preventive healthcare is on the upswing, the one silver lining to the pandemic. “With Covid-19, the world has realised that proactive management such as testing and vaccination are better than cures. They are getting used to the concept of testing as a part of managing infectious diseases. We are also hoping to extend this concept to cancer, cardiovascular and other diseases.”
At the start of the pandemic, MiRXES’s technological expertise and Singapore- based RNA diagnostic manufacturing capabilities received a strong boost when the company was called to mass-produce and commercialise the first Covid-19 test approved for use in Singapore. It took the team just a week to ramp up manufacturing of the test kit that was sent to Singapore hospitals. To date, the company has exported over eight million kits to over 45 countries.
Now, as he looks to the future of healthcare, Dr Zhou believes it is about improving and saving lives.
“We found our calling in screening and early detection, as that will decrease healthcare costs. But what will make this successful is how we can shift our mindset away from treating disease as healthcare to prevention as a lifestyle.”