Once Upon a Founder: Oncoliq

An Argentine dream poised to end the cancer nightmare.

Dec 19, 2023 · 4 Minute Read

This story was written by Mauro Berchi as part of the “Once Upon a Founder” series, where Mana Tech aims to provide a behind-the-scenes look into the unique and impressive origin stories of Latin American startups.

The publicity surrounding early breast cancer detection is extensive. Typically, such detection occurs in women over 40 years old through the diagnostic imaging method known as mammography. However, its effectiveness under certain conditions drops to 60%.

In essence, when a woman undergoes a routine mammogram anywhere in the world, she may leave the office thinking she is healthy, even though, in reality, a one-millimeter tumor could be present.

This is what really worries Marina Simian, Ph.D., Argentine biologist and founder of Oncoliq together with her partner Adriana De Siervi, Ph.D.

A tumor takes years to appear. The key is to detect it as early as possible, and that is why we developed Oncoliq, which is not so sophisticated considering available technologies… When a woman detects a tumor in her breast, it has been there for years, growing. But current imaging systems are 60% effective when the tissue is dense.

Marina Simian, CEO & Co-Founder, Oncoliq

In 2014, De Siervi began researching a different way to detect cancer at the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine (IByME), affiliated with one of Latin America’s most prestigious scientific institutions: the National Council for Scientific Research and Techniques of Argentina, CONICET.

Experiments with mice allowed De Siervi to confirm that microRNA chains,
discovered at the beginning of this century, showed differences when comparing healthy rodents with those that had tumors.

The research progressed and a hypothesis emerged that a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test could observe alterations in microRNA, requiring only a blood sample, without the need for a biopsy or any imaging.

In February of 2021, the hypothesis had evolved into a robust doctoral thesis leading De Siervi to propose the creation of Oncoliq, a simple, low-cost solution to detect cancer.

Simian explains, “There are 50 types of cancer registered, but we usually do not give regular checkups for all organs. Currently, we analyze five types of
cancer, with a primary focus on breast cancer. However, our interest extends to detecting tumors in the pancreas, liver, and brain, which are not regularly monitored.”

Simian is focused and openly shares that within the laboratory, she often depersonalizes the work. “For us, the challenge is to understand and test our method. Afterward, my role within the company is to grow this business, travel, and generate alliances. Otherwise, Oncoliq will never reach its intended destination”.

Simian highlights their decision to use PCR as the detection system, due to its widespread availability in laboratories since the COVID-19 pandemic. This guarantees that any laboratory can offer the service.

Their strategy involves licensing the testing kit to a global health corporation capable of manufacturing and distributing it worldwide. Simian elaborates, “The practice has to be as simple as a boxed cake recipe so that our solution yields consistent results anywhere.”

Looking ahead two years, Simian sees Oncoliq focusing on specific aspects of the process: data management, crucial in the realm of health, and analyzing PCR results.

Screen showing PCR test results

“The test returns a number that, by itself, does not indicate anything. The laboratory that uses Oncoliq must upload that number to the website, we enter it into our algorithm, and thus you obtain a yes or no response, plus the specificity of the tumor. We are going to charge each laboratory a very low monthly membership for that service.”

Approaching the United States market represents a significant milestone in Oncoliq’s journey. Simian is not just seeking top-level technological development but is also preparing for the seed funding round they plan to launch next year, aiming to raise $7 million to facilitate the company’s expansion.

“That’s why in August of this year, we were part of Mana Tech’s Immersion Program,” says Simian. ”For us, networking was the most valuable aspect of the program. We were able to connect with other events, bringing us closer to potential investors and strategic partners we may need in the near future.”

Today, Oncoliq exists as a dream in the shape of a prototype. If realized, it holds the promise of transforming routine checkups into a powerful tool for preventing a nightmare scenario.

Interested in being a part of the next Miami Immersion Program? Join the waitlist today!

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