Gregor Diagnostics seeking to upgrade prostate cancer screening

A Wisconsin biotech company aiming to improve prostate cancer screening is seeking seed funds while competing in a startup accelerator in Texas.

Gregor Diagnostics was founded in February 2016 by CEO Tobias Zutz, who had worked for Exact Sciences for over five years before branching out on his own. After going through gener8tor’s gbeta program last summer, the company recently entered into a license agreement with WARF.

This agreement covers certain biomarkers which Gregor Diagnostics plans to develop and commercialize for a screening test for prostate cancer. The test would be an upgrade from the commonly used PSA blood test, Zutz says.

PSA stands for prostate specific antigen, a substance made by cells in the prostate gland.

Zutz tells that PSA tests have been the standard since the early 1990s, but they have drawbacks. He said the PSA test can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and the resulting unnecessary patient biopsies can lead to infections and other issues. And while usage numbers of this test are going down, he says it’s still the best option currently available.

Gregor Diagnostics’ proposed test would be an improvement, Zutz argues, because it would be more accurate, using seminal fluid rather than blood.

“The problem with blood is that biomarkers have to invade the bloodstream, and they’ve been diluted quite aggressively,” Zutz said. “With seminal fluid, you get the entire sample… tumor cells are being shed into seminal fluid samples at a much higher concentration.”

Users of the test would get a testing kit shipped directly to them, deposit their sample, and send it back to Gregor for testing — just like how Exact Sciences’ Cologuard screening test for colorectal cancer works.

According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in American men, behind lung cancer and colorectal cancer. Other than skin cancer, it’s the most common cancer for American men, and the ACS estimates over 26,000 deaths from prostate cancer in 2017 alone.

“That’s a big problem,” Zutz said, adding that numbers like these were what led him to think a better test was necessary in the first place.

But to get this test on the market, the Madison-based biotech company will have to clear some significant hurdles. The first is completing an ongoing $1.5 million seed funding round, “a significant chunk” of which is needed to set up a product development lab and bring on the company’s chief science officer as a full-time employee, Zutz says.

“Our seed round is the number one priority right now — there’s only so much planning we can do without lab facilities and samples,” he said. “That’s going to take a bit of time.”

Zutz is currently taking part in the fifth week of Health Wildcatters, a startup accelerator program in Texas. The program makes strategic investments in the nine participating companies, and they get a chance to show their progress at a pitch day in early November.

“It’s been great so far,” Zutz said, adding that he’s been having conversations with potential investors.

He also said the company is in the process of applying for grants from the Small Business Innovation Research Program. One way to do that, he said, is to get help from the Center for Technology Commercialization, which offers smaller grants to support hiring grant writers who are familiar with the SBIR process.

Zutz says the plan is to submit a grant proposal in January, but even if that pays off, Gregor won’t see any of the money until June 2018.

Through investments and grants of this nature, Zutz is optimistic that Gregor will be able to bring in enough money to keep rolling.

“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “It’s all coming together.”

–By Alex Moe