Long known as a “silent killer,” ovarian cancer wouldn’t claim nearly as many women’s lives as it does each year if reliable early screening were available. But as we learn on this episode of the Busine$$ of the V, such diagnostics have been elusive — a challenge that Oriana Papin-Zoghbi and her co-founders at AOA have taken up with a passion that has yielded amazing progress.
We learn about this innovative femtech startup company’s new blood test and where it is on its journey to market (stay tuned for 2025!). Co-hosts Dr. Alyssa Dweck and Rachel Braun Scherl walk through the journey from AOA’s inception through its development and what lies ahead for a diagnostic that could boost survival rates for this deadliest of cancers into the 90th percentile.
Early detection of the type AOA is currently moving through clinical trials and FDA approval will be a game-changer not only for women’s health care practitioners but for workplaces that lose valuable employees, insurers who pay astronomical treatment costs and families who suffer irreplaceable loss.
Today women with symptoms that indicate the possibility of ovarian cancer must undergo biopsies that result in removing at least one fallopian tube and ovary when only half among them will in fact turn out to have the disease. For the other half, those who receive a very scary diagnosis, it will very often have come too late to save their lives.
AOA’s introduction as a screening tool (first for women with symptoms and soon thereafter for those at high risk and ultimately — fingers crossed — as a general screening tool not unlike a pap smear) is beyond transformational, as is everything that Oriana has to share about the work she and her team are doing to bring this unique women-led biotech venture to life!
Why Focus on Ovarian Cancer?
- Oriana shares the backstory to her journey through women’s health, rooted in a lifelong passion for the sciences as well as an early entrepreneurial opportunity that opened up a series of fascinating career experiences in the biotech startup space.
- Oriana and her founders had worked together previously in the area of diagnostics when they spotted a huge gap in innovation for women’s health.
- Why ovarian cancer? How Oriana and her co-founders came to focus on ovarian cancer:
- They identified big health problems that were in need of attention.
- They zeroed in on scientific innovation already underway, ready to be built upon.
- Scary stats: 80% of women are already at Stage 3 or 4 when they are finally diagnosed with ovarian cancer, at which point the survival rate is only 25%.
- Early diagnosis boosts survival rates for ovarian cancer into the 90th percentile.
Getting AOA Started & Funded
- Having already proved they were a successful startup team made it significantly easier to raise AOA seed money as female founders.
- The depth of commitment that Oriana and her co-founders have around women’s health boosts their overall credibility within the venture capital space.
Dr. Dweck runs through the reasons ovarian cancer is often missed
- Imaging (which tends to capture only larger masses)
- A blood test that is extremely limited and not FDA-approved for screening.
- Symptoms of ovarian cancer to be on the lookout for:
- Abdominal pain.
- Changes in bowel movements.
- Doctors tend to be conservative in referring women with potential ovarian cancer symptoms to an oncologist because the only way to confirm is through a biopsy that requires the removal of at least one ovary and one fallopian tube.
How AOA Promises Something Different
- They have discovered the utility of two novel biomarkers.
- They are incorporating these new identified biomarkers in an algorithm from which far more specific, sensitive screening for ovarian cancer can be drawn.
- The promise of life-saving early detection is real! (Data are currently under peer review.)
- AOA’s diagnostic tool does not require a mass to be present in order to ascertain whether other symptoms indicate ovarian cancer.
Why Insurance Companies Should Care
- Ovarian cancer is the second most expensive cancer to treat (exceeded only by brain cancer) and the recurrence rates are 96%.
- Women who are diagnosed early only have a 14% reoccurrence rate.
- Oriana notes that it currently takes an average of nine months to diagnose ovarian cancer — which costs the lives of legions of women.
Where AOA is In Its Go-To-Market Timeline
- Anticipates having an assay on the market by 2025.
- Seed money is place to support accelerated development and clinical work.
- Plans for clinical trials in the U.S. and internationally .
- Pursuit of regulatory approvals.
The Strategy Includes
- Building direct sales teams that will work directly with physicians in Europe and the U.S. and at labs.
- Partnerships with a network of women’s health distributors internationally.
- Testimonials and activists on behalf of early diagnosis are in themselves a powerful marketing tool.
·AOA at this point does not see any competitors at the same stage of development. · The AOA platform is ultimately slated to include testing for a number of markers that indicate a range of cancers (including hard-to-biopsy brain cancers). · Diagnostics have been slow to catch up with other biotech innovations, but since Covid19 the power of diagnostic information has come blazing to light.