People undergoing chemotherapy – their bodies and their immune systems – can take a beating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60,000 cancer patients in the U.S. are hospitalized each year because their low white blood cell count led to a serious infection, with one in 14 of these infections resulting in death.
Based on the opinions of oncologists, chemotherapy could be personalized.
Leuko Labs, a startup coming out of MIT, could help patients undergoing chemotherapy spend more time out and about, while still keeping a close eye on how their immune systems are faring. It’s developing a non-invasive tool that would enable patients to monitor their white blood cell count at home so they can know when they’re immunosuppressed and at risk of infection.
While doing clinical rotations at a hospital in Madrid, co-founder and CEO of Leuko Carlos Castro-González saw the side effects of chemotherapy. “Immunosuppression and infections had major consequences,” he told us.
Castro-González also had a friend and roommate who had been diagnosed with lymphoma. He told us, “I got to see in my own life how chemotherapy can affect someone. We had stopped seeing each other for a while. He was told not to hang out with people because we could potentially give him an infection. There’s so much stress and loneliness in this process.”
Leuko Labs’ current prototype is a microscope tool that can see through skin and into users’ superficial capillaries, where blood cells have to squish through one by one. The imaging system can detect contrasts among the different components within blood so it’s able to pinpoint individual white blood cells. And, after the algorithm the company has developed analyzes the images of their blood, it can give estimated white blood cell counts.
Castro-González said, “We saw there was a correlation between our estimated white blood cell count and the hospital’s… The correlation is not yet high enough for it to be used in clinical practice. We’re focused on improving the quality of our prototype and algorithm.”
Leuko Labs is going to start more testing on a second set of human subjects. This time, the subjects will be chemotherapy patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We will be able to follow them when they’re normal and when they’re immunosuppressed,” Castro-González said.
If Leuko Labs’ technology eventually gains FDA approval, the product is expected to improve the quality of life for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
“If they know when they’re at risk of infection, they can take prophylactic antibiotics and reduce that risk ahead of time,” Alvaro Martínez Higes, co-founder and VP of strategy at Leuko, said. “It would require clinical trials to prove it, but based on the opinions of oncologists, chemotherapy could be personalized… If they know patients are able to handle stronger chemotherapy cycles, the results would be better.”
Leuko is first focusing on the applications its technology would have among chemotherapy patients. However, the company recognizes there’s a broad spectrum of possible use cases for its upcoming product. Martínez Higes told us, “Anyone requiring white blood cell monitoring could do it at home.”
For example, the technology could be used to let people know whether they have a viral and bacterial infection, which would clue them in on whether they need to go to the doctor for antibiotics. Even patients with schizophrenia, some of the medications for which can cause immunosuppression, could benefit from it.
Leuko first secured funding for its research from MIT linQ (formerly M+Visión), using that grant money throughout the first two and a half years of the project. More recently, MIT’s Desphande Center for Social Entrepreneurship gave the team a grant to fund another year of research. And Leuko Labs is using small amounts of capital from other sources, such as business competitions, to fund its efforts.