Prior to co-founding DeNovo Sciences, Priya worked at Esperion Therapeutics
under the guidance of Dr. Roger Newton and Dr. Ajit Srivastava. At Esperion, she gained valuable insights into the workings of a start-up and how team dynamics and powerful communication backed up by a strong foundation in science can play a huge role in the success of a project. She was instrumental in getting the DeNovo team together, instilling a can-do attitude and strategizing its unconventional de novo
ways to achieve unexpected great results such as winning the GLEQ "Best New Business Idea" competition within less than a year of starting the company.
Priya holds a master of science in cell and molecular biology from Eastern Michigan University and a bachelor of science in zoology from Cotton College, Guwahati (India). She has enjoyed leadership roles throughout her life, such as being the school prefect at high school and the editor for her undergraduate school magazine. Furthermore, she is also the recipient of the prestigious Prime Minister of India's Gold Medal for outstanding academic performance in the year 2000.
She genuinely enjoys interacting with a diverse group of people and believes in actively contributing to the community, as shown by her involvement with Avalon Housing and Perry Nursery School in Ann Arbor.
A common complaint we so called "tech" people often come across is that we are not coherent to the lay person. During our business presentations, people get lost amid the explanation of the core technology. I am not immune to it, either. When the subject matter is outside my scope of understanding, presentations rush past my head – seriously. So today I am going to tackle a difficult biotech subject that DeNovo Sciences is working on and try to make it interesting. You may have known from my previous articles that DeNovo Sciences is developing a cancer diagnostic platform that aims to replace painful biopsies. I feel that the general public should be aware of this technology as it has the potential to affect all of us in some way or other. So get ready to listen to the story starring circulating tumor cells.
This is a story that involves a battle where the battlefield is within our body. As in any other epic, there is a good side and there is an evil side. The good side is composed of our immune system containing our white blood cells as the ever vigilant soldiers, protecting our body, the fortress, from enemies like viruses, bacteria and other bad germs that attack from outside. But the villain I am going to talk about is even more sinister because it is raised in our own home by our own flesh and blood. Yes, I am talking about tumors. This bloody mess of a villain resides in our organs and waits till its progeny can raise their own wicked colonies. And the real danger lies in that. Once the sons and daughters of the dark lord, let's call him the "Primary Tumor", establish their own kingdoms, it is a downhill battle for our defense system. These children of the dark lord sometimes pass into the blood stream where they are known as "circulating tumor cells" (CTCs for short), and this story is about them.
Even though all the CTCs present in the blood stream originate from the dark lord, not all of them are equally evil. Surprisingly, CTCs born from the same primary tumor display a wide spectrum of heterogeneity in their genetic (hereditary) as well as phenotypic (looks department) make-up. Most of the CTCs are actually harmless and undergo planned suicide as soon as they are released into the blood stream, the process known as apoptosis. Some of them however, linger on and shape-shift from their original form by losing their older clothes or surface markers in a process called epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, or EMT. These are the CTCs that are the most dangerous and are now known as cancer stem cells capable of invading distant organs and raising their own evil empire. Once they identify a suitable place to invade, they once again shape-shift in a process called mesenchymal-to-epithelial transition, or MET.
After this process they are no longer children; they become their own form of dark lords, now known as "secondary tumors". These secondary tumors are even more aggressive than their predecessor and do not rest until they multiply vigorously by destroying everything in their path. At this point the body is fighting a losing war and the defense system is left in tatters. According to experts, the cancer has now metastasized. Hence, capturing these CTCs and characterizing them into their harmless and aggressive forms is crucial for the survival of cancer patients.
For a long time, these rare CTCs were difficult to detect as they hid among the millions of white blood cells, who looked almost the same size and shape as the former. Making the task more even difficult is the presence of billions of red blood cells; the oil that keeps our machine (the heart) running. But the advent of modern technology might change this scenario. Scientists have been trying many different approaches to capture these dark seeds, as they might hold in them the secrets of metastasis.
Some have tried to capture these CTCs based on their surface markers or their outer clothing, as I have mentioned earlier. However, depending on just one single marker is a flawed approach as these cells are capable of shape-shifting. Hence, another approach is desired where multiple markers can be combined to maximize the chances of their capture. One of the simplest techniques to capture these rare cells is to use a filter device and separate the various entities based on their size. Size is indeed a good selection marker, because cancer cells are usually bigger than the other cells. However, the size differences are in the micrometer scale (think really small, smaller than a grain of sand) and simple sieve devices are not sophisticated enough to distinguish between the CTCs and our loyal soldiers.
DeNovo's technology involves the development of a microfluidics device (an advanced micro-scale filter device) that can separate these elusive cells in their own prisons, where various interrogation techniques can be applied on them to reveal their secrets. The chip provides a flexible platform, where multiple markers (up to five) can be tested simultaneously to force these cells into submission.
What are the implications of this technology and how does it influence our story? To date, hundreds of thousands of people die of cancer every year in the U.S. alone. Most of us might be aware of at least one person who has suffered the trauma of cancer. It is interesting to note that 90% of these deaths are due to metastasis, or the spread of the cancer, to multiple distant sites in the body. On a more personal note, we all know that the saddest part of this malaise is the suffering it brings to not only the patient but to everyone who loves that person.
On top of that suffering, now imagine the additional pain of a big needle piercing your loved one to confirm the stage of cancer; in technical terms this procedure is called biopsy. Biopsies are also costly and carry the risk of spreading the cancer further by spreading the children of the dark lord – the primary tumor – further. Detecting these evil seeds directly from a blood draw can alleviate the pain of cancer patients to a great level. DeNovo's CTC detection technology thus provides a painless alternative to agonizing biopsies. Furthermore, DeNovo's technology also provides a vindication to our heroes, the white blood cells. By providing a platform where scientists can differentiate side by side the soldiers from the similar looking CTCs, Denovo Sciences is giving the good side a leg up!
The word cancer never used to bother me, let alone scare me. It was a disease that affected others, never anyone who mattered to me. Or so I thought. Whenever I heard about a dying cancer patient and his or her last wish, I used to feel bad but it did not engage me at a personal level. Compared to cancer, I felt more emotionally connected to heart disease because my dad is a heart patient. Each day my father's happy voice on the phone from thousands of miles away is a great reassurance to a concerned daughter's ears.
During the conceptual phase of my start up, DeNovo Sciences, when the team was going through the idea screening process, cancer would always crop up as an area where the team had expertise, passion and the best market opportunity. But I had felt shallow. I was a little hesitant about the tall challenges of the field and was not as personally connected to it as my two other partners, both of whom have encountered cancer in close quarters. Little did I know, I was embodying the man who was blissfully oblivious of the fires in his neighborhood until his own house was on fire. However, everything changed on one New Year's Eve when I was eight months pregnant.
New Year's Eve is a happy occasion and it has a special meaning to me because it is also my husband's birthday. What other way to celebrate it than with your loved ones? So off we
went to Momi and Daboo's place in Chicago at a time when travel was not advised because of me being in my last trimester. The other reason for our visit was that we wanted to cheer them up as Daboo was not feeling well for a while. When we reached their house, there was tension in the air but we put it aside as just momentary travel weariness on our part. It was just the beginning of a very harrowing journey that will leave an indelible mark on each of us.
To keep things simple and give you all a sense of the overwhelming feeling of sadness that was all-pervasive around us, I will lay out the events as it happened over the course of five excruciatingly long days in the dead of December.
First day: It started out with Daboo complaining about his stomach problems and mentioning his dad in India, who was recently admitted to a hospital after experiencing similar symptoms. My response and feelings: Slight worry, but really it is just tummy trouble, right? I have been a lifelong sufferer of heartburn and indigestion, so I actually felt kinship.
Second day: Daboo's dad feeling a lot worse. Doctors found pancreatic cysts. I secretly called my sister, who is a doctor back in India, to ask about pancreatic cysts and was told that they shouldn't be too dangerous if benign. A little tiny tingling in my heart was saying, God please make it benign. There were three other people in the room with me and all of us were on the internet reading about pancreatic cysts.
Third day: Daboo's dad went into surgery. Pancreatic cancer was confirmed, which had spread to multiple organs. Meanwhile, Daboo went in for a colonoscopy and the doctors found an obstruction in his gastro-intestinal tract. A CT scan was prescribed. Momi was inconsolable. The tiny two-bedroom apartment was becoming too confined for four scared adults and an unborn child. Each of us was trying to pretend that everything was going to be okay soon. We were in denial. None of us were hungry for dinner that night.
Fourth day: Daboo's dad being told there is no hope and given a few days to live. That's when it happened. I lied. For the first time in my life I lied to someone looking straight into their eyes. Momi was sitting in the bathroom crying in secret so as not to upset her guests. She asked me, "With all your knowledge of biology can you tell if there is hope?" "Yes", said I, staring at her teary eyes. "There is always hope. Even in last stage metastatic cancer." I was talking about her father-in-law but worrying like crazy for Daboo because he had the same symptoms. If you think pancreatic cancer is unfair to a person who is 54 years old, then it is downright criminal at 29 years of age. My feelings at the end of the never-ending day? Blank.
Fifth day: We were helping our hosts pack their stuff for India. Doctors gave Daboo's dad only a few days to live. The atmosphere around us? Heavy and claustrophobic, like being inside a box with water slowly pouring in and no way of escape. It was also the 31st of December, New Year's Eve, and my husband's birthday. Nothing was happy about it though. The sinking feeling in my heart? God I know in my heart of hearts there is no hope for Daboo's dad, but please spare Daboo.
When we returned to Ann Arbor, I felt like Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings; my husband and I had just gone through a life altering experience and no matter what we did or said, we could never turn back time to change the past. But we did decide something. We decided to become proactive. Proactive about hope. Not just with words alone but with positive action. And that's when DeNovo's direction was made certain. Cancer research it shall be. And so was born the core technology of DeNovo Sciences--a microfluidic device to detect and capture rare circulating tumor cells, the seeds that are responsible for the further spread of cancer.
Daboo's dad is no longer with us. But his suffering will not go in vain. Daboo's condition was never diagnosed. Pain and discomfort are his constant companions nowadays, but as long as it is not cancer, we can still breathe easy. One day if, God forbid, I have to face a loved one who looks up to me for hope, I will look straight into their eyes and say with conviction, "Yes, there is hope. Even for metastatic cancer. There is DeNovo."
"At the very least we can write a book on our adventures," I said earnestly, looking at my two attentive partners. We were having our first meeting as co-founders of DeNovo Sciences and discussing its future. It was an unusual tea party. An Indian, an Iranian and an American were having an animated conversation on science and business possibilities in place of politics. Over three cups of steaming tea, the importance of entrepreneurship was reiterated and the co-founders of DeNovo Sciences prepared themselves for hardships in return for the promise of making an impact on this world.
How did it all begin? It all started when I approached Chris Seimer, who was my colleague at Esperion Therapeutics, to join me in my new start up. I had worked with Chris in the lab and found him to be one of the most genuine and kind-hearted persons I have ever known in my life. Plus, of course, I liked his ingenuity in the lab. I knew I had found my partner in him the moment I decided to start a company. At first, the offer must have caught Chris off-guard because it came out of nowhere. I just decided to ambush him one day and didn't even give him a chance to say no. I told him, at any rate, you are invited to a tea party.
I have always believed that two people make a good partnership, but three makes a complete team. And I knew who was to be our third partner even before I approached that person with a formal offer. Saedeh Sepehri and I were classmates at Eastern Michigan University doing our masters degrees in molecular biology. In her, I saw a very sincere and industrious young lady who had the potential to become a very successful researcher one day. Saedeh and I bonded over our shared interests in science, ethnic food and fashion; no wonder she decided to join DeNovo Sciences to make it the coolest technological endeavor ever. And so she agreed to come to the unusual tea party.
My next big challenge was formally introducing the team members to each other. Saedeh and Chris barely knew each other and had only met once before at my home for a party. However, all my apprehensions were put to rest when the team members bonded naturally and the positive vibes reverberated all around us. "Well, what about the idea?" one of them asked. "A company is not just about the biggest and the greatest idea ever. It is about the team, its hunger and the drive to make the enterprise a success that differentiates a great company from an average one," I replied emphatically. In the next couple of months, DeNovo Sciences would meticulously go through dozens of ideas to finalize the best idea that fit the company's mission of making an impact on society and the team's passion in life sciences.
The toughest part during the initial discussions was to talk about the finances of the company. A start-up by young people barely out of college and internships is rare; a life science tech company built from scratch by young people is unheard of. DeNovo Sciences was lucky because unlike my peers, I was financially secure owing to a supportive executive husband. I had put aside all my earnings from Esperion to kick start DeNovo; and so an intern's accumulated salary became the first pre-seed fund for the company. Saedeh, Chris and I vowed to make a few sacrifices like working on minimal salary in order to achieve our final dream of raising a successful company.
Our first adventure happened when we heard about Accelerate Michigan, the biggest entrepreneurial event in the state. Last year, the team did not even have money to pay for registration, so we devised a DeNovo strategy of participating as volunteers. Not only did we make important observations during the course of the event, it also allowed us to network with other entrepreneurs and community leaders who gave us important insights into the world of business. It was at Accelerate Michigan that our very resourceful team member Saedeh managed to impress a reporter from Concentrate into writing a story on DeNovo. The article not only boosted our morale, but also managed to expose our story to the local community.
Another lucky break for DeNovo was meeting Sandra Cochrane from MI-SBTDC. As the three co-founders of DeNovo Sciences came from a science background, writing the business plan was a big challenge. Sandra gave an in-depth review of our business plan and steered us toward a winning direction (we went on to win the Great Lakes Entrepreneurs Quest "Best New Business Idea" category). The next few months were spent on reconfirming the problem that the company had determined the solutions for by talking to customers and thought leaders in the field, and brainstorming the technical ideas with our engineer, business and biology friends over delicious Indian and/or Persian dinners (we called it Dinner Diplomacy, which is another exciting story altogether). Through our diligent work and unconventional de novo ways, the company not only managed to get a strong business and scientific advisory board of local executives and thought leaders, but also found collaborators in the academic world; particularly, a prominent cancer researcher, Dr. Ramzi Mohammad from Karmanos Cancer Center, to do the validation studies on our prototype and also serve as our scientific advisor.
So far, DeNovo Sciences has exceeded all of the company milestones, such as competing and winning GLEQ, developing the proof of concept prototype, filing for IP and SBIR funding, collaborating with thought leaders in cancer research and hiring a CEO. DeNovo Sciences has also recently moved into a laboratory space at the Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center and is proud to be amongst like-minded innovative life science companies.
The team has reached this point through its razor-sharp focus on the milestones, sheer hard work, unparalleled devotion to teamwork and unconventional but creative de novo ways. The team is also extremely thankful to our advisors who had faith in the team's ability from the beginning and supported us morally and in kind throughout our journey so far. Today we are actively seeking angel investors to fund our product development. Things are looking up for the team of DeNovo Sciences!