A gene genie targets cancers while there's still time

As a molecular geneticist with expertise in nucleic-acid biochemistry, Mohammed Harris helped nurture new life. He obsessed over its finite building blocks — the constructs of “chromosomal and nuclear architecture and the morphology of single-cell genetics in DNA.”

Today, Harris’ mission is to save lives, taking a preventive stance on cancer diagnosis as the mastermind of Prevnos, a gene-testing innovator and a 2017 Stellar StartUps finalist.

Deploying what he says is the world’s first hybrid fusion FISH (fluorescence in-situ hybridization) testing methodology for the early detection and active surveillance of cancer, Prevnos aims to detect abnormal cancer genes before little critters devolve into monsters.

“Our preventive test spots and predicts cells that are mutating, so you can take actionable measures with the proper targeted therapies before the situation becomes worse,” Harris said. “Ninety percent of death by cancer happens when it’s discovered in the late or metastasized state, too late for drugs to help. What we’re doing is catching a mutation in the benign state, where specialized treatments can still be effective.”

While Prevnos (and some competitors) have already tooled up and marketed a number of single-variety cancer-marking tests, the hybrid fusion FISH methodology aims to “assay” (that is, detect/analyze) a multiplicity of cancers with a single blood, tissue, or urine sample. If it works successfully, that would cut costs, ease the stress on patients, and improve the context and cross-referencing of abnormalities because the pathologist would get a single moment-in-time “snapshot” of  aberrant body chemistry.

“We’re currently capable of spotting four to six mutations per cell … but will expand that to 24, making us the leader/pioneer in multiplex single-cell genetic interrogation,” Harris vowed.

Hybrid fusion FISH offers an unusual visual test mechanism as well, he said, simplifying the analysis. In the patent-pending Prevnos methodology, glowing fluorescent probes attach to abnormalities, then show themselves as a set of “targeted” dots,  distinct in color and number, depending on the gene quirk in question. “So a pathologist can look at the sample and quickly identify exactly what’s going on: what type you have; what stage you’re in; and what type of therapeutic drugs you should use.”

As with most things medical, there’s serious profit potential in all that. Switching from lab coat to business-suit persona, Harris laid out his master plan to pair with “a strong diagnostic partner” — like LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics, or BioReference Laboratories, for example —  “in addition to a strong pharmaceutical partner.” A Prevnos diagnosis would match the malady with a specific, branded remedy.

With work that began in January 2016 with an investment of just $25,000 and a staff of “less than five,” Prevnos still has a way to go. “We’re past proof-of-concept,” said Harris. Part of the spring 2016 cohort of the Dreamit Healthcare Alumni in Philadelphia — and praised by Dreamit chief innovation officer Steve Barsh as “a wonderful, thoughtful and dynamic leader … extremely intelligent and hardworking” — Harris has already “validated the product” by rousing interest from peer researchers at high-profile medical institutions.

In tech/med start-up speak, they are now “provisional” Prevnos customers, “tracking it for effectiveness but not using it for clinical utility. We have approval for RUO — research use only,” he said, and are pursuing Food and Drug Administration registration for other uses.

But wait, there’s more. The multitasking, multivision entrepreneur — Harris is also a Stellar StartUps finalist for CourtVision, his matchmaking and team-building app for amateur basketball players — sees another interesting and profitable industrial use for hybrid fusion FISH testing. That would be analyzing the single-cell microbes in samples of shale rock, to determine the likeliness of trapped gas worth fracking.  Extractors could then work more FISH tests to check the water that’s been added into the ground in the process, “to assure that the microbial population is efficiently balanced for gas production.”

Though he imagines that industrial applications could represent 10 percent of Prevnos’  business, Harris said that “our core focus will always be in preventive screening, saving lives.”