For the last three years, the team at the NeoGenomics laboratory in Fresno have analyzed countless genetic images from patients, many of them local.
Written by Ben Keller
In the fight against cancer, it’s been said the most powerful weapon is early detection.
Leading that charge is cancer diagnostics and biopharma services company NeoGenomics Laboratories, whose seven laboratories across the country are helping physicians determine the best therapy for their patients.
The company’s cytogenetic analysis laboratory in Fresno has been a part of that mission for the last three years.
Since Valley’s Children’s Hospital contracted out its genetics lab in 2003, the 11 cytotechnologists working there made their way to another genetics testing company, US Labs, in Fresno.
In 2014, the group found its permanent home when NeoGenomics brought them along to its new laboratory analysis facility opening at the River Park Corporate Center.
Three years later, they still work together, analyzing some 600 to 700 specimens a month for chromosomes abnormalities that are commonly observed in cancer.
The analysis also provides clues as to the most effective treatments by identifying abnormalities unique to each chromosome.
“Certain gene and chromosome abnormalities are indicative of certain chemotherapies that people best respond to,” said the lab’s supervisor Robin Vandergon. “They can tell given research and current literature, what subset of patients will respond well to therapies and do better.”
The patients’ specimens are processed and photographed at the NeoGenomics’ laboratories in Fort Meyers, Fla., Nashville, Tenn. and Alisa Viejo, Calif. Technologists at the Fresno lab are part of a team of employees who analyze images of chromosomes using an electronic format with specialized software.
And while these software programs can help to separate the jumbled Pick-Up Sticks-like assortment in the image, it takes a trained eye to spot the disease-causing mismatches and other genetic slipups that occur during the cancer disease process.
In most cases, the slip-up, or mutation, is a rearrangement of two or more genes of a chromosome leading to diseases like leukemia or an abnormal duplicate gene resulting in breast, ovarian or other cancers. Sometimes, an entire chromosome is missing, such as in the case of some blood cancers like myeloid leukemia.
Each week, Fresno’s technologists look over thousands of genetic images of cancer patients across the country, many of them originating from local doctors and hospitals.
Often, the team also serves as a second pair of eyes reviewing the work of NeoGenomics technologists located in Tampa, Fla. and Houston, Texas.
The job is further enhanced by new data stemming from NeoGenomics’ research and development section, where scientists strive to create better methods of spotting cancer-causing gene errors.
But whether its contributing to the latest cancer research or viewing chromosomes under a microscope, Vandergon said the entire staff at NeoGenomics is focused on the goal of providing better genetic information for the clinician so that an effective patient management plan can be implemented.
“We are a genetics diagnostic company,” she said. “And there is a lot being done within the company to stay on the cutting edge of discovery, diagnosis and treatment. Our scientists, along with current literature, can provide testing for new markers in a number of different cancers such as leukemia, lung, prostate, bladder and so many others.
“New genetic markers can be analyzed and the patient’s oncologist, in many situations, is now able to tell if the patient has a specific cancer and, more importantly, what type of treatment gives that patient the best possibility for response and treatment.”
Founded in 2002 as a prenatal testing laboratory, NeoGenomics moved to cancer testing in late 2004.
Thirteen years later, the Fort Myers, Fla.-based company is one of the largest cancer testing laboratories in the U.S. and offers hundreds of different tests to identify cancer on both the genetic and molecular level.
The company, traded on the NASDAQ market under the name NEO, this week reported record revenue of $66.1 million for the second quarter, with a 16 percent increase in clinical genetic testing volume.
In an industry tirelessly pursuing faster, more effective cancer treatments, Vandergon said there’s still plenty of room to grow in Fresno.
With new tests and more images to analyze all the time, she said it would be nice to expand within NeoGenomics’ current home inside the 30 River Park Place building in north Fresno.
“The challenging part of it is that our business is testing people for cancer and if it’s growing that means more people are at risk for cancer,” said Vandergon, whose own mother was diagnosed with Large B Cell Lymphoma two years ago.