Detecting cancer before it spreads: Patrizia Paterlini-Bréchot named European Inventor Award 2019 finalist

  • Paris-based Italian oncologist Patrizia Paterlini-Bréchot nominated for European Patent Office (EPO) prize for developing a new diagnostic blood test for cancer
  • Her highly-sensitive blood filtration process detects circulating tumour cells (CTCs), which play a key role in spreading cancer to other organs of the body
  • Paterlini-Bréchot’s invention could save many lives and opens up new avenues in predictive medicine

Munich,
7 May 2019
– The
European Patent Office (EPO) announces that cancer researcher Patrizia Paterlini-Bréchot has
been nominated as one of three finalists for the European Inventor Award 2019 in
the category “Research” for developing a blood filtering technology for the early
detection of cancer.

Her invention makes it possible for doctors to detect cancer cells in a blood
sample long before a tumour can be found with standard imaging techniques. Importantly,
her test can detect these cells before the patient develops metastases – the
spread of cancer from the primary tumour to other organs of the body – which is
the reason why 90% of patients lose their fight against the disease.

“We know that with cancer treatment effective detection is a key,” said EPO President António Campinos, announcing the
European Inventor Award 2019 finalists. “Early diagnostic methods
such as Patrizia Paterlini-Bréchot’s invention are opening up a new front in the battle against this disease by helping
doctors to detect
the presence of a tumour in its very early stages,” he said. “Her story demonstrates
how patents can play an important part in driving research that saves and
improves lives.”

The winners of the 2019 edition of the EPO’s annual innovation prize
will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna on 20 June.

Inspired by helping patients

There were an estimated 18.1 million new cancer
diagnoses worldwide in 2018 and 9.6 million people died of the disease last
year. Some cancers are especially difficult to diagnose: lung cancer, for
example, is detected at an early stage in only 15% of
cases. Finding an effective, non-invasive way to diagnose cancers accurately
and early on has the potential to save millions of lives each year. This is
also what has motivated the
Italian-French researcher throughout her career.

Paterlini-Bréchot studied medicine at the University of Modena, where she specialised
in haematology and oncology. After working as a cancer specialist in Bologna, she
felt that the most concrete way of helping patients in the long term would be to
focus on biomedical research. In 1988 she
moved to Paris to train in molecular biology, completing her PhD in 1993
at University of Paris XI on the fundamental bases of oncogenesis. Today Paterlini-Bréchot
is Professor of Cellular and Molecular Biology/Oncology at Paris Descartes
University, a practitioner in the Paris public hospital system, team research leader
at French public research organisation INSERM, and scientific advisor to a
company she also founded.

Early
on in her career, she lost a cancer patient with an advanced stage of cancer within
days of first seeing him. The feeling that she could do nothing to help him
shocked her so much that she decided to devote her life to reducing the
mortality rate of cancer and to improving patients’ lives, something that she
explains in her 2017 book Tuer le cancer (Killing Cancer). When asked about this the inventor says: “Often people think that cancer hits a person
suddenly and spreads very quickly, but this is not true. What we’ve learned over the past decades is
that the process of forming metastasis is very slow and can go on for years.”

Saving lives through early detection

Paterlini-Bréchot decided to take advantage of this “weakness” to fight the disease. She concentrated her research on the
possibility of detecting circulating
tumour cells (CTCs). These cells, which are shed from the primary tumour and
travel through the body in the blood, can be present several years before
metastases develop. Since the 1990s they have been a focus of research due to their
role in spreading cancer.

Finding
CTCs in a patient’s blood is a clear sign that tumours are present and that the
person is at risk of developing metastasis. The earlier they are detected, the
faster and more effectively a patient can be treated. But a number of challenges had to be overcome. For
one, CTCs are extremely rare; and they are also incredibly variable. Using her
knowledge of oncology and haematology, Paterlini-Bréchot came up with the idea
of vertically filtering the blood to isolate CTCs, which is possible due to their
larger size compared to other cells.  “We phoned
all the blood banks at the time to ask if they had a method for vertically
filtering blood,” she says. “But
nobody could help us; they said it was impossible. The problem is that blood
clots very quickly and it contains a huge amount of cells. Just 10
milliliters of blood contains on average 100
million white blood cells and
50 billion red ones. The sheer amount clogs every sieve and every
filter.”

But Paterlini-Bréchot and her team did not
give up: they tested more than 700 different ways of filtering blood samples before
finally coming up with the right parameters to make it possible to filter and
isolate CTCs reliably. She first published work on her new process and device, called ISET® (Isolation by
Size of Tumour cells) in 2000, and began filing applications for the first of
several European patents.

Filter innovation for better diagnoses

With Paterlini-Bréchot’s method blood is first
drawn, diluted and then inserted into
a small plastic cartridge containing a wafer-thin polycarbonate filter, which
works like a coffee filter. The cartridge is inserted into a small table-top machine,
which performs the filtration by generating a gentle vacuum that forces the
blood sample through the filter.

Smaller
blood cells pass through the pores of the filter and, if there are tumour cells
in the blood, then these are retained due to their larger size. This process
can be completed in about 15 minutes. It is so sensitive that it can detect a single CTC in
a 10-millilitre blood sample, or roughly one in about 50 billion blood cells. Cancer
specialists can then study cells captured by the filter under a microscope to
verify that they are cancer cells, and perform further analysis.

Patients
can receive further tests to determine the correct course and timing of
therapy, long before metastases occur. In one clinical trial for lung cancer,
ISET detected CTCs in patients one to four years before cancerous lung nodules
would become visible on CT scans. The test could, therefore, enable doctors to
target patients at risk of lung cancer (for example, smokers), in order to make
very early interventions if needed.

Furthermore, given that anti-cancer medication targets
tumour cells, isolating CTCs in this way can help medical specialists assess
whether the treatment is working: anti-cancer drugs that are effective would
make CTCs disappear. Another advantage of this method is that the technology can be used to detect virtually all types of
solid cancers and even some forms of leukaemia.

Pioneering predictive
cancer care

In order to make use of the invention, Paterlini-Bréchot founded
Rarecells Diagnostics in 2009. The Paris-based company is a spin-off of Paris
Descartes University, INSERM and Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris,
and now holds the exclusive licence to her ISET patents and distributes and
develops the tests. The licensing agreement ensures that royalties go back into
the public institutions that own the patents. This is an important motivation
for Paterlini-Bréchot who believes that research should be for the benefit of
the public.

It is also the reason that patent management is such a
big priority for her and her team: “It’s clear to me that the only way to use
research to improve peoples’ lives is to bring research products to the market,
and patents are essential in this process,” the inventor says.

The global CTC diagnostics market was estimated at EUR
8.2 billion in 2017 and is expected to grow to EUR 24.9 billion by 2023. Paterlini-Bréchot
is a pioneer in this expanding market. Her ISET test has been available to
patients in France since February 2017 – at a cost of just under EUR 500 – as it
is currently not covered by health insurance. More clinical trials are needed
to establish cancer-specific guidelines for the medical community, a process
that requires a great deal of funding. Nonetheless the technology has already
been validated by more than 70 independent scientific studies on over 2 000
patients with different types of cancer, and on some 600 individuals without
cancer.

Paterlini-Bréchot’s next challenge is to identify in which
part of the body the cancer originates, as this would facilitate screening, so
work continues. Her vision for the future is for ISET to become routine and
incorporated into normal check-ups, ensuring that her invention and its
benefits are accessible to all.

“Ultimately I think it was good that I went into research,” the inventor
says. “That way I can help many
people at the same time – I can improve and lengthen their lives. If I’d remained a doctor, I’d only have been
able to help one patient after the other – rather than all of them at once.”

About the European
Inventor Award

The European
Inventor Award
is one of Europe’s most prestigious innovation
prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, it honours individual inventors and teams
of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest
challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an
independent jury consisting of
international authorities from the fields of business, politics, science,
academia and research who examine the proposals for their contribution towards
technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in
Europe. The Award is conferred in five categories at a ceremony that will this
year take place in Vienna on 20 June. In addition, the public selects the
winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists by online voting
on the EPO
website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 16 June 2019.

About the EPO

With nearly 7 000 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the
largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with
offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the
aim of strengthening cooperation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO’s
centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality
patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million
people. The EPO is also the world’s leading authority in patent information and
patent searching.

Additional resources

View the
patents:
EP2633912, EP1108057, EP1383926, EP1866091

Additional
information, photos and videos about the European Inventor Award 2019 can be
found in the EPO Media Centre. Smart TV users can download our app “Innovation TV” and watch videos about all finalists on
their TV screen. The award ceremony on 20 June 2019 will be broadcast live on
Innovation TV, the EPO website and the EPO’s Facebook page.

Media contacts European Patent Office

Jana Mittermaier
Director External Communication

Rainer Osterwalder
Press Spokesperson

EPO
Press Desk

Tel. +49 89 2399 1833
Mobile: +49 16 3839 9527
press@epo.org

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