Entrepreneur Matthew H.J. Kim wished his mother’s oral cancer had been caught earlier.
He struggled to watch her go through treatments for the disease, including the removal of part of her jawbone. There had to be a way to intervene sooner, he thought.
“While she was carrying that weight, it motivated me to learn about it and do more,” he said.
Kim’s search led him to the University of Miami, where Dr. Elizabeth Franzmann’s lab had developed a system to quickly assess patients’ oral cancer risk. Five years later, his Miami startup Vigilant Biosciences has raised millions to bring the OncAlert system to market.
The first step is an oral rinse that dentists could give to patients at every checkup.
“You would be asked to rinse for five seconds, gargle for five seconds, and spit into a cup,” Kim said. “Then you would put this test strip into the cup.”
The strip detects protein markers that indicate risk for early-stage cancer. High-risk patients would be referred to a specialist, who could then use Vigilant’s lab test to aid diagnosis.
“It’s very simple, it’s very minimally disruptive, and it can be easily implemented into the current standard of care,” Kim said.
Right now, dental hygienists typically screen for oral cancer by wrapping a patient’s tongue in gauze, then looking and feeling for abnormalities. Kim said research shows that method just isn’t good enough.
“That has resulted in most cases being caught at a Stage 3, Stage 4, where the mortality rate is very high,” he said.
Vigilant has raised $7.8 million so far — including a $5.5 million round closed this week. The funds will help the company get CE Mark approval, which would allow the OncAlert system to be sold in the European Union.
The company is also pursuing Food and Drug Administration approval, which will likely come in 2016, Kim said.
Vigilant will hire three to 10 people in the coming year to support the product’s international launch.
The 10-person team is scattered across Florida and the U.S. for now. Kim is about to move to Miami from Atlanta, where years ago he started AerovectRx Corporation, the first spin-off company from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vigilant’s long-term plan is to use the University of Miami’s biomarker discoveries to assess risk for other types of cancer. At the moment, Kim is happy to focus on oral cancer.
“This is a very personal mission for me,” he said. “I’m incredibly excited that it’s becoming a reality.”