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Immunicon: Sharpening the Focus on Cancer Diagnostics

In the complicated world of cancer diagnosis, bigger is definitely not better. Recognizing the power of small, one company—Immunicon—has developed a technique that can isolate testing down to a single cell in a tube of blood-utilizing nanotechnology.


CellTracks Analyzer II, part of Immunicon’s suite of CellTracks technologies, is a semi-automated fluorescence microscope used to count and characterize selected cells.

Immunicon’s technologies, collectively called CellTracks, can identify, count and characterize a small number of tumor cells present in a blood sample from a patient. “Immunicon is one of only a few medical diagnostics companies that have successfully gone from product concept all the way through to United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance,” says James G. Murphy, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Huntington Valley-based Immunicon.

Better Technology Means Better Diagnoses

CellTracks isolates circulating tumor cells in the blood using various magnetic enrichment techniques. “There are many other cell separation techniques out there, including flow cytometry, but a number of very important subcategories of cells do not exist in large enough quantities for these techniques to isolate and evaluate them,” Murphy says. “That’s why CellTracks is so revolutionary. For example, while flow cytometry isolates down to thousands of cells of a particular population in a blood sample, CellTracks can isolate down to a single cell in a tube of blood.”

Murphy points to “very powerful clinical data” that backs up the company’s technology, including a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine that describes the positive results of the company’s fundamental clinical trial in monitoring metastatic breast cancer.

Starting Off Together

Immunicon was founded by Paul Liberti, a scientist on the faculty at Thomas Jefferson University Medical College, in 1983-the same year that Ben Franklin Technology Partners was established. Liberti had the idea to use magnetic particles coated with an antibody to isolate very rare populations of cells in the blood, a new and different technique that set it apart from others in the marketplace. In 1984 Ben Franklin established its Seed-Stage Funding Program, with Immunicon as one of its first projects.

The company, whose current president and CEO is Byron D. Hewett, built up steam in the early 1990s with some help from Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP). “Ben Franklin provided a loan that was part of a joint development effort with Temple University, and it helped advance some of the technology we were involved in,” Murphy says. Immunicon’s CEO at the time was Edward Erickson, who went on to temporarily lead Immunotope Inc., another BFTP portfolio company in the southeastern PA region. In 2004, Immunicon was named Nanotechnology IPO of the Year by Small Times magazine, and Erickson was named Small Tech Business Leader of the Year.

Filling a Need

Murphy says that BFTP fills a need that frequently exists when companies are in the product concept stage. “You won’t often see venture capitalists taking an active interest in developing new technologies until they have reached a certain point. Ben Franklin really helps scientists work their concepts through the principles necessary to obtain a larger amount of funding, which in turn helps with further development.” In the case of Immunicon, a modest initial investment by BFTP helped create a multimillion-dollar cancer diagnostics enterprise. BFTP/SEP invested a total of $455,000 in Immunicon from 1984 to 1996.

Today Immunicon is 100 employees strong and growing, with a market cap of more than $25 million. “As large as the potential cancer diagnostic market will grow is as large as Immunicon can become,” Murphy says. “We plan to continue developing our technology so it will detect even earlier stages of cancer and help match particular therapies with particular patients in a personalized format.”

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This article was featured in
Keynotes January, 2008
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