Science Start-Ups

Unknown | unknown.ysm@gmail.com April 3, 2011

Although some start-ups are founded by entrepreneurs looking for the next big break that will propel them to the cover of Forbes or The Wall Street Journal, Mira Dx Inc., the biotech startup company founded by Yale Professors Joanne Weidhaas, M.D., PhD. and Frank Slack, PhD., is of a different pedigree. Rather than trying to make it big, Mira Dx strives to serve researchers interested in turning their discoveries into innovative technologies in the commercial sphere.

Founded in 2008, Mira Dx is the result of collaborative research between Weidhaas and Slack and the discoveries they have made at Yale. The company’s first product, PreOvarTM, is a test that can “assess the relative risk of developing ovarian cancer for women who have a family history of ovarian cancer.” The test is conducted with either a blood or a saliva sample and can be ordered by individual physicians, genetic counselors, or hospitals.

The idea for PreOvar originated in 2005, when the team discovered that changes in certain microRNAs (miRNAs) regulate a gene called KRAS. miRNAs are small segments of RNA that help regulate protein production by silencing and repressing target segments of messenger RNA (mRNA) to which they bind. They discovered that some cancer patients carried an inherited change in their DNA that prevented miRNA regulation of KRAS. The variant KRAS DNA sequence, a marker they refer to as the KRAS-variant, disrupts the ability of miRNAs to repress KRAS.

Professor Joanne Weidhaas of the Yale Cancer Center. Photo courtesy of Professor Weidhaas.

With this discovery, Weidhaas and Slack knew they were onto something: if inherited changes disrupting miRNA binding could cause cancer, they could be used as genetic markers to screen for cancer risk. An effective method of evaluating risk is especially important in the case of ovarian cancer because over 50% of patients are diagnosed in late stages of the deadly disease.

Although the KRAS-variant is present in one-quarter of all ovarian and lung cancers, the gene is not usually part of regular genetic screening. More intriguingly, the KRAS-variant occurs independently of BRCA1 and BRCA2, the genes known to be associated with elevated risk for breast cancer and a small percentage of ovarian cancers.

With that idea in mind, Weidhaas and Slack patented the technology with the help of the Yale Office of Cooperative Research (OCR) in 2007. OCR works with researchers to translate academic research into commercial products and offers prospective researcher-entrepreneurs support in a variety of areas, from patents and licensing to identifying seed funding and finding office space. Currently, OCR is assisting five companies, including Mira Dx.

Generally, OCR helps researchers patent a technology and then licenses that idea to a company. In the case of Mira Dx, however, Weidhaas and Slack were interested in founding a startup to fully develop their own technology. Although the development is slower and more difficult than the process of licensing to an existing company, Weidhaas and Slack are able to more closely direct the future growth and development of Mira Dx. OCR also helped the company start a relationship with Connecticut Innovations, an arm of the state government that supports technology startups.

rofessor Frank Slack of the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department. Photo courtesy of Professor Slack.

In addition to the support of OCR, the company benefits from their existing connections and resources. For instance, a lawyer, who is an associate close to Weidhaas and experienced in technology and patents, was able to offer Weidhaas and Slack valuable advice and insight when they were just getting started. Slack advises fellow scientists and researchers interested in founding their own startups to reach out to potential mentors as resources. “Rely on people who have the skill set to get you started. It helps to identify people who can help you at the early stages,” he said.

Today, Mira Dx is headquartered in New Haven, where its offices at 300 George Street are divided into two departments: a scientific lab and an administrative office. The company has also expanded, with a Board of Directors, sales staff, a lab technician, a COO, and a CEO. Although they have kept their day jobs, Weidhaas and Slack continue to be involved in the development of Mira Dx, meeting with the company several times a month and serving as the company’s Scientific Advisors.

In the future, Mira Dx hopes to release several additional tests that could help in the field of cancer screening. But in the meantime, Weidhaas and Slack are putting “colleagues first and business partners second.” They will continue to focus on research and patient care, letting their desire to improve the lives of cancer patients and passion for science lead their startup’s direction.