Startup Spotlight: On-Q-ity’s microfluidic cancer diagnostics

On-Q-ity is commercializing a microfluidic approach developed at MGH for capturing rare circulating tumor cells for quantification and analysis. Image credit: Lecia V. Sequist, Sunitha Nagrath, Mehmet Toner, Daniel A. Haber, and Thomas J. Lynch

One of the most lethal events in cancer is the process of metastasis — when cells from an initial tumor spread throughout the body to generate new tumors. Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) are cancer cells that invade the bloodstream to circulate through the body; not surprisingly, they have been linked to metastasis. Knowing the status of a patient’s CTCs could be enormously helpful in diagnosis and monitoring of treatment. However, it can be difficult to detect CTCs among billions of blood cells since the frequency of CTCs may be as low as 1 cell per billion blood cells.

On-Q-ity is one company tackling this problem with a microfluidic approach. Using technology commercialized out of Mehmet Toner’s lab at the Massachusetts General Hospital, On-Q-ity uses an array of microfabricated posts to filter the blood. The posts are coated with antibodies to epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM). Tumor cells that flow through the device stick to the posts and are trapped for counting or further analysis. Once the CTCs are captured, the next question is — how to best analyze them to inform diagnosis and treatment? The microfluidic capture of CTCs is just one part of On-Q-ity’s strategy; its portfolio also includes a number of DNA repair biomarkers for monitoring the effectiveness of therapy. One advantage of the anti-EpCAM approach is that it could be used on a variety of solid tumor types; On-Q-ity is currently exploring use in breast, prostate, lung cancer, and others.

However, On-Q-ity is not the only player in this space. Veridex’s CellSearch is a competing CTC diagnostic that is already available on the market. The Veridex approach is non-microfluidic, however similarly uses anti-EpCAM antibodies. In a recent paper, researchers connected with On-Q-ity claim the microfluidic approach is superior to CellSearch because of its higher sensitivity and ability to keep the trapped CTCs alive for further analysis. In addition to Veridex, On-Q-ity is competing against several other groups looking to enter the same market (e.g., Biocept, MIRACLE project, CytoScale).

For a glimpse of the CTC chip in action, see this recent video from On-Q-ity’s associated academic research team at Mass General (video of CTC chip begins around 1:10):

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Steve Pemberton
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Lily, thanks for the post of the video. I was noted Dr. Toner as saying around 1.34 that “it’s a simple blood test” … and he envisions that you would “go to your physician for an annual checkup” for the isolation of these rare cells, and then Dr. Haber says around 1.54 that the isolation of these cells would enable the monitoring of therapy. These two divergent visions illustrate the problems with commercializing CTC’s. Are they diagnostic or are they prognostic, or are they for monitoring of therapy. The answer to this underscores the difficulty in commercializing this test, (that plus the LDT concept and lack of reimbursement for CTC tests hamper both On-Q-Ity and Veridexx). It is an interesting technology, and one that clearly deserves more research to define the true role of CTC’s in caring for patients with cancer. I would also like to see a comparison of cost of CTC monitoring of cancer therapy versus conventional CT scans. What is the cost/benefit ratio?

  2. Posted September 14, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Steve, thanks for the comment — great points regarding the challenges associated with multiple visions and reimbursement/cost.

    Both On-Q-ity and Veridex seem to be initially targeting already-diagnosed patients to help physicians tailor treatment and monitor disease progression/therapy. I wonder if there may also be potential to expand into other populations later, for example patients in remission or those with tumors suspected to be benign, but that doctors want to “watch” just in case. For those patients it could be beneficial to catch metastatic activity early on, before metastases have been established that are large enough to detect on scan.

    In addition to considering cost-effectiveness of CTCs vs. CT scans, it might also be interesting to see an economic analysis that includes any long-term therapy cost-savings associated with earlier detection.

  3. Joseph
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Do you have a list of other companies tackling this problem?

  4. Posted October 18, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Hi Joseph, there are indeed other companies in addition to Veridex, Biocept, MIRACLE project, and CytoScale which were mentioned above. Additional competitors include: AdnaGen, Vitatex, Tataa biocenter, eOptra, and Advanced Cell Diagnostics seemed to be pursuing this market in 2009.

  5. Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    Please find here a comprehensive list of all commercially available CTC technologies.

    Lily, I update this post on a regular basis with new additions as and when I come across them. please feel free to link it to your post as a reference. there are tons of other CTC-related resources on my blog as well. Hope you find it useful.

  6. Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Abdur, thanks for the comprehensive link — this is fantastic! I’ll do a follow-up blog post to point readers to your list in case they haven’t seen your comment here.

  7. Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    The genius store cadlel, they’re running out of you.

2 Trackbacks

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


  • FluidicMEMS is…

    ...a blog about how microfluidics and bioMEMS technologies can solve real-world problems. event series in Boston aimed at bringing together the innovation community surrounding these endeavors.

    ...lead by a team of MIT-trained engineers with backgrounds in microfluidics.

  • Subscribe