NEW YORK (360Dx) – Sample collection firm iSpecimen is developing a cloud-based system for streamlining procurement of patient samples.
The system, which the company plans to launch in May, will allow researchers to place online requests for specific sample types that iSpecimen will then work to fill via its various clinical partners.
Comparing it to travel websites like Kayak.com, Christopher Ianelli, iSpecimen's founder and CEO, said the tool will allow users to "go to our website and enter in exactly what they need, and then we'll search across our network and tell them when we find what they are looking for."
According to the company, its network of sample providers currently consists of more than 250 hospitals labs, 1,000 clinics and medical practices, 12 biorepositories, 10 commercial labs, six clinical trial organizations, and one large blood center.
Ianelli launched iSpecimen in 2009 with the aim of providing researchers access to patient sample remnants — the leftover portions of clinical samples that are typically thrown away after whatever tests ordered by a patient's physician are done.
The idea was based on an existing system at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, where Ianelli did his residency.
The system at Brigham and Women's tracked samples as they entered and passed through the hospital's clinical laboratories and allowed researchers to put in requests for those samples that they wanted to use in their work.
"So, if you're a researcher working on multiple sclerosis or ALS or whatever it may be, instead of having to go out to patients to get that sample of blood or plasma that you may need for your research, you could now make a request that the clinical laboratory keep an eye out for it," Ianelli said. "And if that clinical lab happened to see a sample from a patient like the one that a researcher was requesting, at the end of clinical testing, instead of throwing it away, the clinical lab could re-tube it, relabel it, and send it across the hall or down the street for that researcher to use. And what they would be sending would be completely de-identified."
Given that most hospitals and clinical labs around the country likewise throw out clinical samples left over after testing, Ianelli founded iSpecimen with the plan to scale the notion behind the Brigham and Women's program to a broader multihospital sample collection firm.
The company, which is not affiliated with Brigham and Women's, has since expanded to offer not just remnant samples but samples from other sources like biorepositories, as well as fresh tumor samples procured from patient surgeries.
Remnant samples have proven popular for biomarker discovery and validation work, particularly for genomic applications where concerns about the stability of the target molecules are not especially pressing, Ianelli said.
"Leftover blood usually gives you adequate-length DNA, so if you're just doing genomic analysis, you might be able to use clinical remnants to save yourself a lot of time and money collecting those samples," he said.
On the other hand, he noted, research involving less stable molecules like RNA probably can't make use of a remnant "because what you're looking for has degraded by the time you're going to get it. So, there we would say you have to go out and collect that sample just for your purposes, or go to biorepositories that collected it under the right conditions and froze it right away, so that it's still adequate for what you're trying to do."
Assembling suitable patient cohorts is one of the biggest logistical and financial challenges in biomarker research and molecular diagnostic development, where, even after bringing tests to market, companies have struggled to stay in business while generating the large amounts of clinical data required to prove clinical utility and drive adoption.
A number of companies aim to fill this gap, including firms like BioIVT, Asterand, 12B2 (funded by the National Institutes of Health) and Explorys (part of IBM). Recently, Novaseek, a Cambridge, Massachusetts startup launched with the goal of providing what it said is an "end-to-end" solution for defining patient cohorts, requesting specimens, and tracking, managing, and analyzing study data through its cloud-based Clinical Data Network for Research platform.
Ianelli said that using remnant samples provides savings of "an order of magnitude" compared to traditional patient recruitment.
"A clinical remnant sells on the order of tens of dollars," he said. "To go out and find a cohort of patients, and then collect that blood just for your research purposes, you're going to spend hundreds of dollars, maybe even into the thousands of dollars per patient."
Additionally, use of remnants can speed up sample collection efforts, he said. "We're watching such a large network of these, that you can get your collection much faster."
Currently iSpecimen's network has access to more than 25 million clinical remnants, Ianelli said. In total, the company has provided close to around 100,000 such samples to around 100 different customers, he added.
While remnants are popular in diagnostics research, applications like drug development typically require more deliberately collected samples. For instance, iSpecimen customer Cellaria Biosciences develops custom mouse xenograft models for cancer drug discovery and research, which requires fresh patient tumor tissue.
David Deems, president of Cellaria, noted that here, too, going through a company like iSpecimen is "significantly less expensive" than procuring samples in-house.
Also important, he said, is the breadth of the company's network.
"I would say that is one of the key strengths of what iSpecimen brought to us," Deems said. "If they had brought just a singular channel, it would be less interesting to us as a partnership, but because of the existing network that they had, it allowed us to immediately expand the sourcing of our tumors to other tumor types that we did not have a channel to provide."
He said that Cellaria obtains around 70 percent of its samples through outside vendors like iSpecimen, adding that the company uses several different firms, though iSpecimen is the only one it uses for a range of tumor types.
"Our other channels are very specific around disease," he said. He declined to name any of the other companies Cellaria uses to source samples.
Based in Lexington, Massachusetts, iSpecimen currently has just under 40 employees, Ianelli said. The company is privately funded and closed a $2 million Series A round in 2012 and an $8 million Series B round in 2014.