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Entrepreneurs

35 Innovators Under 35

Entrepreneurs

They see technologies as sparks of opportunity.

Dena Marrinucci, 33

Her startup bets it can track cancer from an early stage, without any biopsies.

  • by Eilene Zimmermann
  • Problem:
    Tumor cells that metastasize through the blood are generally very difficult to detect until they have spread to the point of being deadly.

    Solution:
    Dena Marrinucci cofounded Epic Sciences in 2008 to commercialize a cell detection and analysis technology that she developed to find cancer earlier. It can find and profile nearly all the tumor cells in two tablespoons of blood taken from a patient. On average, a sample that size has 50 billion red blood cells, 50 million white blood cells, and only a few circulating tumor cells. “You’re basically looking for needles in a haystack,” says Marrinucci.

    Other technologies miss some circulating tumor cells because they are scanning for only one biological marker or are filtering cells by size. Epic says it finds more because it detects not only genomic abnormalities but also other biological markers, such as protein expression in cells. That should be useful in tracking the progress of a patient’s cancer over time, so that treatments can be adjusted as the disease evolves. Twenty-six pharmaceutical companies are using Epic’s technology in clinical trials of cancer drugs.

    Marrinucci had just begun graduate school at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego in 2004 when her grandmother was diagnosed with advanced melanoma. Less than a year earlier, however, doctors had given her grandmother an all-clear after a PET scan. “By the time you see cancer cells on a PET or CT scan, there are thousands of them,” she says. “And that’s what we’re trying to change.”

    —Eilene Zimmermann