OncoSwab: Making lung cancer detection as easy as a Covid-19 test

27 May 2024

CEO and co-founder Andrea Stephany Diaz. Image: OncoSwab

Andrea Stephany Diaz was only 24 when she first had the idea for her start-up. Two years later, that idea is well on its way to becoming a gamechanger in lung cancer diagnostics.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the world, and the leading cause of cancer deaths. But unlike other common forms of cancer, such as breast cancer, lung cancer is more difficult to detect: often being diagnosed at advanced stages when treatment options are limited.

Existing methods to diagnose lung cancer include chest X-rays, CT scans and biopsies, all of which necessitate the patient to be in a hospital setting. But what if checking for lung cancer could be as easy as testing for Covid-19? That’s an idea the founder of our latest Start-up of the Week has set out to realise.

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“Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, and while multi-cancer early detection tests have gained attention in recent years, lung cancer specifically requires significant improvement – a challenge we are eager to tackle,” Andrea Stephany Diaz, CEO and co-founder of OncoSwab tells me.

How it started

Based in Corroux, Switzerland and established only last year, OncoSwab is developing a nasal swab test to detect lung cancer in the same way people tested for Covid-19 during the pandemic. This makes it compatible with at-home and point-of-care settings, potentially eliminating a major barrier to early lung cancer detection.

According to Diaz, OncoSwab is about using the non-invasive nasal swab to detect biomarkers “right at the source” – the airway.

“We strongly believe this direct detection method has the potential to be more accurate compared to traditional blood-based tests. Designed for simplicity, it can be used both at home and in clinical settings, making it an accessible and cost-effective solution for early lung cancer screening,” she explains.

“We’re currently in the process of validating this innovative approach with top-tier hospitals and lung cancer experts in the US and Europe, aiming to revolutionise early detection and significantly improve patient outcomes.”

Originally from Venezuela, Diaz moved to Spain as a teenager. Ever since her school days, she has dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur in the healthcare sector with the mission to impact patients’ lives. This interest led her to get a master’s degree in molecular biotechnology and work on various projects across Europe, including genetic engineering for neurodegenerative diseases.

‘The Bay Area is, in my humble opinion, the best place to be as a founder’

At an EU hackathon competition in 2022, Diaz met her co-founder Dr Pablo Lara, a pharmacologist with more than a decade’s experience in cancer research.

“Our paths crossed over our shared vision to make lung cancer screening as accessible as Covid-19 tests. At first, it was a crazy idea at a hackathon. But neither of us could stop thinking about it – what would lung cancer look like if it was as easy to detect as Covid? We decided to give it a shot,” Diaz says.

“The original idea, of course, has changed drastically since then, but the mission remains: to make lung cancer detection as easy as possible. That’s how OncoSwab was born.”

How it’s going

Today, only a year into being a start-up, Diaz is confident OncoSwab can be a key player in lung cancer detection. According to her, only a few European countries have screening programmes for the disease even though more than 230,000 people die from it every year in the EU.

As someone who spends most of her time between San Francisco and Switzerland, Diaz said the US is a key market for the young start-up.

“The Bay Area is, in my humble opinion, the best place to be as a founder. Needless to say, the start-up scene is beyond active. Switzerland is a place full of innovation, a great place to be as a biotech company. The scenes are completely different though.”

Things are going well for OncoSwab. It was recently accepted into two top health accelerators – Health Wildcatters and the Swiss-funded DayOne Tech Accelerator. It has also secured significant non-dilutive funding from prestigious the Switzerland Innovation Foundation and VentureKick, as well as from private investors.

“We have a patent-pending technology, and our team, including renowned lung cancer specialists and diagnostic experts, is growing,” Diaz says. “We’re also in the process of establishing multicentric clinical partnerships in the Netherlands, Spain, the US and Switzerland. All of this in a little over a year!”

OncoSwab is now actively seeking investment and is currently in talks with venture capital firms and angel investors for a planned funding round. “It’s easy to make steady progress if the team is motivated,” Diaz says, “and, most importantly, [if] you’re tackling a true, unmet need.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic