Company’s breast cancer test promises earlier detection

When she shares news with female friends of the breast cancer test her employer, Oncimmune Ltd., is developing, Laura Peek has to temper their enthusiasm.

“They’re very excited,” she said. “They want to know if they can get the test. I have to tell them it’s not available yet.”

Peek’s friends are responding to the promise of Oncimmune’s blood test, which can detect the presence of breast cancer cells much earlier than mammograms.

“It detects the presences of antibodies the body produces in response to tumors,” she said. “It can detect cancer much earlier because the tiny tumors don’t show up in mammograms. In some cases, as much as four years earlier.”

Peek’s friends shouldn’t have to wait much longer. Peek, Oncimmune’s senior scientist, and Richard Sheriff, Oncimmune laboratory coordinator, visited De Soto recently to check out the company’s new home. Oncimmune plans in February to move into the second building in The Commons office complex on De Soto’s Commerce Drive. Oncimmune has been leasing space from IBT Reference Laboratories in Lenexa since opening its North America operation in November 2006.

With the move, Oncimmune will join Huhtamaki Americas Inc. and Intervet Inc. as European companies that have moved their North American headquarters to De Soto.

John Robertson, a professor of surgery at Nottingham University in England, founded the company in 2003 to explore commercial applications of laboratory research.

The breast cancer detection blood test Oncimmune plans to market from Robertson’s research is still in its validation stage, Peek said. The goal is to begin marketing in March, soon after the company moves to De Soto, she said.

“We’re going to be hiring a marketing director to develop a marketing plan to get the word out,” she said.

With the move to De Soto and the start of marketing, the company plans a significant expansion of its work force, Sheriff said.

“Right now, we have 10 employees,” he said. “We’ll have 40-plus in a year to 14 months.”

To fill positions in the laboratory, Oncimmune will hire medical technicians and those with bachelor’s degrees in the sciences, Peek and Sheriff said. Salaries will be in the $40,000 to $45,000 range, Sheriff said.

The company continues research efforts in Nottingham, but one of the reasons it located in the Kansas City metropolitan area was the opportunity for research cooperation with Kansas University. That effort benefited from $500,000 in vouchers from the Kansas Bioscience Authority to research transfer of its breast cancer technology to colon, prostate, lung and other cancers.

In addition, the company received a $2 million forgivable loan from the authority to equip Oncimmune’s new lab with advanced equipment needed to market its blood test. Janice Katterhenry, chief financial officer for the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said all of the loan could be forgiven if the company grew to 120 employees.

“Our thought is they would reach that 120 mark,” she said. “Forty, for me, that’s a nice growth for that company. I do think we’re all excited about the company.”

Oncimmune’s decision to locate to the metropolitan area is an indication of the promise of the Kansas Highway 10 corridor and the effectiveness of the bioscience authority, said Rich Caplan, executive director of the K-10 Association.

Caplan predicted continued spin-off along the corridor in the life sciences as the Kansas State University Olathe Innovation Campus bioscience research park moves ahead, Kansas University expands its research presence and more office space becomes available.

“It’s an overused word, but there is such a thing as synergy,” he said. “Companies like to be near each other.”