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A Faster, Cheaper Test For Lung Cancer

Noninvasive test earns Avrum Spira Innovator of the Year award

| From BU Today | By Art Jahnke

MED’s Avrum Spira (left) and Jerome Brody identified genetic abnormalities among lung cancer patients. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Technology that makes possible a new, noninvasive method for the early detection of lung cancer has earned Avrum Spira, an associate professor at the School of Medicine, the 2011 Innovator of the Year award, given to a BU faculty member whose research led to the formation of companies that benefit society at large.

Most lung cancers are currently discovered when doctors perform a bronchoscopy, which involves inserting a long scope, often with a camera, through the mouth and into the lungs. Once in the lungs, the tool can take pictures or clip lung tissue for biopsy. The technique works, but is usually performed only after there is evidence of pulmonary distress, too late in the game to cure the cancer. Of all lung cancers found with bronchoscopies, nearly two-thirds are beyond stage one and probably fatal.

Working at MED’s Pulmonary Center with Jerome Brody, a professor of computational biomedicine, Spira (ENG’02) identified several genetic abnormalities among lung cancer patients. Because these genes can be found in epithelial cells, outside the lungs, tests can locate them easily, inexpensively, and painlessly. The two researchers are now commercializing their research at Allegro Diagnostics of Maynard, Mass.

BU Provost and Chief Academic Officer Jean Morrison presented this year’s Innovator of the Year award at Tech, Drugs and Rock & Roll—BU’s annual networking event for individuals involved in Technology Transfer in the Boston area.

“Professor Spira is an entrepreneurial scientist, whose practical approach to science has led to the formation of Allegro Diagnostics, a start-up company intent on producing beneficial molecular diagnostics for detecting lung cancer,” said Morrison. “His accomplishments in the past year include 14 peer-reviewed papers published, one invention disclosure, two patent filings, over $3.5 million in NIH funding, and $8.9 million invested in Allegro Diagnostics.”

In addition to being an associate professor of medicine, pathology, and laboratory medicine, Spira attends in the Boston University Medical Center’s Medical Intensive Care Unit and he is chief of the Division of Computational Biomedicine. He also directs the Translational Bioinformatics core within BU’s Clinical & Translational Science Institute.

A native of Montreal, Spira earned his medical degree from McGill University and did his internship and residency in internal medicine at the University of Toronto. He completed a pulmonary and critical care medicine fellowship and received a master’s degree in bioinformatics from the BU College of Engineering.

“It was a difficult decision to choose Avi as the Innovator of the Year as it was a strong year for successful BU faculty spinoffs,” said BU Technology Development Managing Director Vinit Nijhawan.

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