Cancer research is the specialty of the Oncolab company around founder and scientist Robert Zeillinger. The most important research area is so-called circulating tumor cells. They occur when a tumor has already been able to grow accordingly, so that tumor cells are released into the blood and spread in the bloodstream.
“At a suitable point in a target organ, the tumor cells can then leave the blood again, migrate through the vessel wall and migrate into the target organ, for example the liver, where they begin to grow again, which is the formation of a metastasis, which is ultimately fatal “, Explains Zeillinger.
Tumor cells are stained
Since Wednesday, Oncolab has been offering products that make it possible to detect these tumor cells in the blood. Specifically, the red blood cells are removed from a blood sample so that essentially the white blood cells and – if any – tumor cells remain. So that the cells can be scanned, they are colored accordingly. If tumor cells are found, they light up red.
“In general, the more circulating tumor cells that are found in a sample, the worse the prognosis for the course of the disease and the higher the probability of metastasis, i.e. that the tumor can metastasize elsewhere in the body” says research assistant Esther Weiß.
PCR tests to detect tumor cells
Another method that Oncolab uses is PCR testing. Here, a very specific search is made for so-called markers that usually do not occur in the blood. They are therefore an indication that tumor cells are circulating in the body. “The earlier a sample rises in fluorescence, that is precisely this rise in the curve, you could say that there were more tumor cells in this sample that are positive for this marker,” says Martin Svoboda, Manager for Research and Development at Oncolab.
According to the company, these means can also be used to track whether a patient is responding to treatment. If the number of circulating tumor cells decreases in the course of a treatment, this shows that the treatment is successful. If this is not the case, therapy should be discontinued and another treatment chosen.
Corona test using saliva samples
Aside from PCR tests to find tumor cells, Oncolab is also working on offering PCR tests for other viruses. The PCR tests were most recently made known to a wide audience through the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. This is exactly where the company wants to start. “The technology is exactly the same as for the cancer test,” says founder Robert Zeillinger. However, one would like to take a different approach when collecting samples.
Two types of samples are currently used for a corona test – a nasopharynx swab and the so-called gargle test. Oncolab wants to use saliva so that sample collection is not so unpleasant. “You give off saliva, you suck on an absorbent stick to gain saliva, and we can then use this saliva sample to detect the virus directly,” says Zeillinger.
These saliva tests are not yet fully developed. According to Oncolab, however, they should be on the market in a few weeks. Then the tests should not only be able to detect the coronavirus and various mutations of it, such as the British or South African variant, but should also be able to detect other viruses, such as the flu or runny nose virus.