Optellum co-founder Václav Potěšil talks new funding, and how it's fixing lung cancer diagnosis

Steven Loeb · September 30, 2022 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/5500

The company, which announced a $14M Series A funding round, uses AI for early lung cancer detection

In 2020, Lung cancer caused nearly a quarter of all cancer deaths, the highest of any form of the disease, and it wasn't even close: that was more than twice the percentage of deaths than the second deadliest form, colon and rectum, which was responsible for 9% of deaths. Approximately 150,000 people in the United States, and 1.8 million people worldwide, die from lung cancer every year. 

Obviously, the way lung cancer is currently being diagnosed and treated is simply not working and Optellum is looking to fill that gap: the company uses artificial intelligence decision-support software to assist physicians in early diagnosis, so that every lung disease patient is diagnosed and treated at the earliest possible stage, when the probability of better health outcomes is at its highest.

Founded in 2016, the Oxford, UK-based company, which has an FDA 510(k) clearance for the application of AI decision-support software in lung cancer diagnosis, announced this week a $14 million Series A funding round led by Mercia, with additional investors Intuitive Ventures and Black Opal Ventures. Existing investors, including St John's College in the University of Oxford, IQ Capital, and the family office of Sir Martin & Lady Audrey Wood, also participated in this round.

This new funding brings its total raised to date to over $30 million, and the company says it will use the money to scale its base, operations, and commercial launches in the UK and USA; accelerate research and development; and expand its platform into personalized therapy decisions by integrating imaging data with molecular data, robotics, and liquid biopsies.

Václav Potěšil, PhD, co-founder and chief business officer of Optellum, spoke to Vator about what's currently lacking in lung cancer diagnosis and treatment, how Optellum is changing that, and the company's ultimate vision for healthcare.

VN: What does the current diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer look like? What gaps currently exist?

Václav Potěšil: Lung cancer kills more people than any other cancer. The current five-year survival rate is an abysmal 20%, primarily because most patients are diagnosed after symptoms have appeared and the disease has progressed to an advanced stage, either Stage III or IV. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated its screening recommendations in 2021 with a push to diagnose lung cancer earlier, when it is more amenable to treatment.

One of greatest opportunities to diagnose more small, pre-symptomatic lung cancers earlier is presented by the two million patients in the United States every year who have a lung nodule identified incidentally during chest CT scans ordered during unrelated treatment, such as emergency room or cardiac scans. Current guidelines mandate follow-up over one to two years to determine whether a nodule is cancerous. 

VN: What is the effect of those gaps on patients? How does it affect their health outcomes?

VP: Currently, over 60% of lung nodule patients do not receive guideline-recommended follow-up, severely limiting opportunities for early intervention and treatment. Patients often completely slip through the cracks, presenting significant risks that can be life-threatening. Patients who do receive recommended follow-up often require multiple imaging scans and biopsies, and sometimes unnecessary invasive procedures including surgical biopsies and lung resections, before arriving at a definite diagnosis.

Across the nation, approximately one in four surgical lung resections to remove and diagnose lung nodules suspected of being cancerous, are conducted on patients with benign nodules. This potentially exposes patients without cancer to severe stress, unnecessary harm, reduced quality of life, and on occasion, untimely death due to surgical complications.

VN: What is Optellum doing differently? How are you filling those gaps?

VP: Virtual Nodule Clinic serves two main functions in the early lung cancer diagnosis pathway: care coordination and diagnostic support.

With care coordination, we apply natural language processing technology to review radiology reports and identify pre-symptomatic patients with lung nodules flagged in any CT scan across the hospital or health system, including heart scans and emergency scans. Automatically populates and updates a dashboard to help clinicians track all patients and ensure appropriate and timely action by the right clinical team member. 

With diagnostic support, the system automatically consolidates all relevant imaging, including past CT exams and relevant radiology reports, and makes them available in one view. The platform then uniquely analyses each nodule of interest in a standard CT scan using a deep neural network algorithm and assigns a nodule-specific lung cancer prediction score, which indicates the risk of a nodule being cancerous – enabling a healthcare team to focus follow-up procedures like biopsies and surgeries on the truly high-risk patients.

VN: Who is your typical customer? Walk me through some typical use cases.

VP: The typical customer is an academic medical center or a community hospital, which already "generates” detection of many incidental nodules in its emergency room scans, or a busy cardiac practice, for example. These healthcare providers want to assure patient safety (all at-risk patients are identified and tracked, with no potential cancer cases slipping through the cracks), and to provide the earliest possible treatment options to the right patients. These healthcare providers can expand the volumes of downstream lung cancer surgeries and radiation therapies in curative settings, while ensuring healthy patients with benign nodules are spared invasive procedures.

Last, but not least, Optellum makes the lives of clinicians, pulmonologists, and nurse navigators easier. 

VN: What kind of ROI have you been able to calculate for patients thanks to your platform? Do you have hard numbers you can share?

VP: The ROI of the Optellum Virtual Nodule Clinic is very compelling because it gives healthcare providers the ability to grow the volume of lung cancer therapies for the right patients – as evidenced by the first wave of commercial customers. The economics of the system will further improve as we progress our reimbursement strategy within the United States. While we have several studies underway with our customers and industry partners, we cannot share these numbers prior to their publication. 

VN: How many customers do you have now? How many patients are you reaching? 

VP: Currently, we are working with a limited number of early launch sites which, in the US, are leading academic medical centers. The first community healthcare centers have been implemented, and more are in the process of coming on board, including the first integrated delivery networks. Each of our early customers typically identify between 500 and 1,000 new patients with incidental lung nodules per year, and these numbers are accelerating rapidly with increased utilization of CT imaging and the growing adoption of CT lung screening. 

VN: What kind of personalized therapy decisions are you planning to expand into now that you have this funding?

VP: Lung cancer is the last frontier of interventional oncology, where a growing array of novel, minimally invasive therapy devices have already achieved significant clinical adoption. These include lung resection surgery using robotic-assisted thoracic surgery, and radiation therapy using stereotactic body radiation therapy. Other novel devices are set to become clinically available soon, such as ablation modalities including microwave, cryogenic, local drug delivery, to name a few.

Unfortunately, in today’s diagnostic care pathway, sub-optimal decisions lead to patients bouncing around various diagnostic steps for months, delaying the definite diagnosis and the start of the right treatment – and often missing the window of opportunity for best outcomes for the patient. Even if lung cancer patients are treated at Stage I or II, 30 to 60% of those patients will eventually experience recurrence, or lung cancer relapse. This is an area of enormous interest for biopharma companies, where we have recently seen the first regulatory approvals of targeted and immunotherapies used in the curative setting, before or after surgery or radiation therapy, in order to minimize the risk of recurrence.

Optellum’s Virtual Nodule Clinic already has the potential to increase the number of at-risk patients being identified, thereby shortening their time to diagnosis. That is expected to result in stage-shift cancer screening—hence the increased number of candidate patients for minimally invasive treatments like surgery and neo/adjuvant drug therapies. 

Therefore, as a next step, we are following the patient journey, to guide optimal treatment decisions for patients with small, early-stage and even pre-cancerous tumours that have already been enrolled into the Virtual Nodule Clinic since the first detection. Such pre-operative assessment modules will support physicians in making optimal therapy decisions, enabling them to develop a personalized therapy and treatment-monitoring plan for the right patient at the right time.

At the core of our approach is multi-modal integration (integrating imaging with clinical data, molecular tests, and liquid biopsies) and partnering with leaders in thoracic oncology across the medical technology and biopharma industries. Such partnerships will accelerate product development and clinical studies of such AI-enabled “digital companion diagnostics” and global market adoption. 

VN: What is your ultimate goal with Optellum? What will success look like for you?

VP: We want Optellum to become the standard of care for the early diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer and other deadly disease of the lungs, enabling physicians around the world to give their patients the best chance to fight back.  

Within lung cancer, I foresee Optellum playing a key role in enabling implementation of key disruptive technologies across the lung-cancer patient journey—working alongside our partners in liquid biopsies, minimally invasive device therapies, and targeted drug therapies—to jointly turn lung cancer from being the death sentence of today into a disease that can be survived by most patients thanks to optimal early intervention.

VN: Is there anything else I should know about the company or the new funding round?

VP: While the Series A is led by Mercia, a large financial VC fund, the round includes participation by two leaders in the medical technology and biopharma industries. Intuitive Ventures is the independent VC arm of Intuitive, the global market leader in robotic-assisted surgery and the pioneer in medical robotics with the da Vinci robot. Black Opal Ventures was founded by a clinician, a thought leader in value-based healthcare, with unique expertise in market access and reimbursement, and is funded by Eli Lilly, one of leading biopharma companies. 

We see their investments as an endorsement of Optellum’s position as the leader in AI decision support for lung cancer diagnosis and treatment. Practically, these investors can also help open doors for Optellum, accelerating clinical adoption and the development and market access for new products in precision oncology—alongside Optellum’s existing strategic partners, which include GE Healthcare and the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson.

(Image source: optellum.com)

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