Farmington startup draws attention for its breast cancer research

Groton — A stone's throw away from the newly designated biotech incubator on Pfizer Inc.'s campus, about 50 scientists gathered Wednesday to hear the story of a startup company from Farmington that is making waves in breast cancer research.

Marcia Fournier, who relocated Bioarray Therapeutics from Massachusetts to incubator space at the University of Connecticut Health Center, said she now has clinical evidence showing the effectiveness of a diagnostic test her company developed. The test, she said during a presentation at Pfizer's main research building, can determine whether a specific person will likely see positive results from traditional breast cancer therapy.

More than three-quarters of patients traditionally fail to respond to the usual first-line treatment, wasting precious time and money, she said. By using her company's diagnostic test, Fournier said, the percentage of breast cancer patients who were unresponsive to treatment was cut by more than half.

"I think we are getting somewhere with breast cancer," said Fournier, a native of Brazil whose husband works for ESPN.

Fournier's appearance was sponsored by the bioscience network Connecticut United for Research Excellence, which was the recipient this month of a 24,000-square-foot laboratory building donated by Pfizer for use as a business incubator focusing on a range of science applications. The CURE Innovation Commons donation was arranged by the Malloy administration, coordinated by CURE Executive Director Susan Froshauer - who attended Wednesday's meeting - and backed by a $4.2 million bonding package to renovate the long-vacant building and pay for other startup costs.

Inside Pfizer's Building 220, Fournier had the rapt attention of people attending CURE's second Bioscience Clubhouse event in southeastern Connecticut - the first having been held at the Garde Arts Center. Usha Pillai, coordinator of CURE's networking programs and a former Pfizer scientist, said the series of meetings being held around Connecticut is all about making researchers feel more connected to other parts of the state.

"It's really about building community," she said.

For Fournier, it was also about getting a chance to talk about her new diagnostic technology at Pfizer, a company that could likely benefit during clinical trials from a test that identifies those who would not benefit from a specific therapy, Pillai said.

Fournier estimated that about $2.5 billion annually is wasted in the United States on breast cancer treatments that Bioarray's test indicates will not work. An estimated 200,000 new breast cancer cases are diagnosed annually nationwide, she added.

Besides the cost, there also is the question of lost time. Some cancers are curable if patients receive the right treatment up front, Fournier said, but the wrong type of chemotherapy can mean the spread of cancer cells and a greater chance of bad outcomes.

"Unfortunately, only a minority of them will get the right treatment," she said.

Fournier said Bioarray is currently developing a test that could be offered at any laboratory. It is also seeking investors to help commercialize the product.

Fournier added that getting health insurance companies to pay for diagnostic tests can be a big hurdle, but she was confident that Bioarray's clinical data differentiated it from other companies that had not put its product through such rigorous testing. She also acknowledged that intellectual property protections can be difficult to obtain in the current environment but said building a diverse patent portfolio that protects various aspects of the technology can offer investors some comfort.

"Being the first at market is a big deal," Fournier said.

And so is the idea that doctors may soon receive more ammunition in the fight against breast cancer - with prostate and pancreatic cancers perhaps the next targets for diagnosis.

"We have a cause that people identify with," Fournier said.

l.howard@theday.com

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