December 15, 2020
Base Genomics, a biotechnology startup co-founded and built on an invention by a University of Chicago alumnus, was recently acquired by Exact Sciences for $410 million. The startup company sequences genetic and epigenetic data to detect early-stage cancer, which could revolutionize cancer treatment.
“This has the potential to be one of the biggest oncology products,” said Chunxiao Song, a principal investigator and assistant member of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of Oxford. Song, who obtained his PhD in Chemistry from UChicago in 2013, is also the co-founder and chemistry advisor of Base Genomics.
“I mostly focused on the research side of things in the beginning. I kept my head down and worked hard to develop the method,” said Song. “Once the paper on the technology was published by Nature Biotechnology in 2019, it started to get a lot of attention, and people outside of academia were interested in collaborating.”
Prior to this publication, Song had met Ollie Waterhouse, an Entrepreneur in Residence at Oxford Sciences Innovation, the world’s largest university-partnered venture firm. Waterhouse was interested in early-stage cancer detection and saw Song’s new technology as a game-changer for the field. Song and Waterhouse then started talking about building a company together. Song reached out to his former advisor at UChicago, Prof. Chuan He, to get his advice.
“Chuan He encouraged me to build my own company and brand, advising that it would be good for my career in the long term,” explained Song.
Chuan He, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of the Department of Chemistry, is an expert in epigenetics—the study of heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence. Song worked as a graduate student researcher in He’s lab and there he was first introduced to the emerging scientific field.
“Chunxiao is an innovator. He invented 5hmC-Seal in my laboratory and has continued to make new innovations that impact biomedicine and health care,” He said. “He is a good example of future academic scholars who generate new knowledge but also impact society with their inventions. I am proud of him.”
“Through Chuan He, I learned that it is possible to maintain academic work while working with entrepreneurs,” said Song. “Base Genomics has turned out to be bigger and have more momentum than I could have dreamed.”
Early detection of cancer could have a huge impact on saving lives and preventing suffering while decreasing treatment costs. For He, the impact of his research has recently developed a personal significance. “A few years ago, my mom was diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer,” said Song. “It was surprising to us because she isn’t a smoker and there is no family history of lung cancer. This kind of story has grown more around us.”
To expand the work of Base Genomics, Exact Sciences will be building out their primary team at Oxford. “I hope to remain involved and advise the chemistry,” expressed Song. “It’s still in its early days but there is momentum to make the early detection of cancer accessible.”
Song encourages other researchers and students to dream big: “You can still do the research you love while forming partnerships with people in business. Once you develop good chemistry, people will come to you.”