By LAURIE KAISER
Published January 16, 2024
UB faculty member Vincent Tutino believes there's a cost-effective and simple way to detect a potential brain aneurysm.
Through Neurovascular Diagnostics, a small biomedical company Tutino co-founded in 2016, a team of researchers is developing a way to screen individuals for unruptured intracranial aneurysms (IA), or brain aneurysms, with a blood test called AneuScreen.
To further this work, Neurovascular Diagnostics — co-founded by Hui Meng, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Jeff Harvey, a Western New York entrepreneur; and Kenneth Snyder, assistant professor of neurosurgery — was recently awarded $2.9 million in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funds by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant is expected to support research over the next three years.
“Currently, metrics that determine whether a patient is at risk for an IA rupture — which is a catastrophic event that carries a high rate of mortality and permanent disability among survivors — can only be accessed after an invasive, expensive test,” says Tutino, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Most health insurance will cover this type of screening only if two or more immediate family members have had an aneurysm, either ruptured or unruptured.”
And this test is usually handled through MRI, Tutino says, which may not be highly accurate at detecting aneurysms, especially smaller ones.
“We want to enter the space as a prescreen for a larger pool of patients,” he says. “Maybe it’s a person with just one family member who has suffered an aneurysm or maybe it’s a person with a lot of cardiovascular risk factors, who would be at higher risk for an aneurysm.”
Postmenopausal women who smoke, for instance, are at a high risk for aneurysm and stroke, he notes. By identifying the best candidates and screening them with an inexpensive blood test, predicting potential brain aneurysms would become easier and cheaper.
Harvey, who lost his wife, Carol Harvey, to two ruptured brain aneurysms in 2002, provided the seed money for the company; he established a research grant through the Brain Aneurysm Foundation.
Over the past few years, Neurovascular Diagnostics has received two National Science Foundation grants; two NIH grants, including this most recent one; and funding from UB’s Center for Advanced Technology in Big Data and Health Sciences (UB CAT) program.
“Due to Jeff’s generosity that stemmed from a tragedy, we’ve been able get this company off the ground and make real strides in creating a game-changing screening,” says Tutino, who has established an impressive team of researchers and clinicians.
Kerry Poppenberg, Neurovascular Diagnostics’ chief science officer and a UB research scientist in the neurosurgery department, serves as co-principal investigator with Tutino on the grant; Harvey serves as the company’s chief financial officer, Meng is chief scientific officer and Snyder serves as chief medical officer and clinical adviser.
Other clinical collaborators at the Jacobs School include Elad Levy, SUNY Distinguished Professor and L. Nelson Hopkins Endowed Chair of Neurosurgery; Adnan Siddiqui, professor and vice chair of neurosurgery; and John E. Tomaszewski, SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Peter A. Nickerson, PhD, Professor and Chair of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences at UB.
Tutino and his team have used whole blood samples from patients coming in for medical imaging at the Gates Vascular Institute, in addition to medical centers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Iowa and the University of South Florida.
“Early on, we looked at specific cell types in the blood, namely neutrophils, the white blood cells that respond to immune disturbances and infections,” Tutino says. “In a lot of the data, we saw more exaggerated expression patterns in individuals who had larger aneurysms.”
In their new grant project, the Neurovascular Diagnostics team hopes to build out their assay and add additional risk markers to be able to assess whether a patient will have an aneurysm and if he or she does, how risky it might be.
In addition to detecting potential aneurysms, the test will help triage patients to figure out which ones may need more invasive imaging and which ones might need more immediate treatment, Tutino explains.
“For patients with an already known aneurysm, they will get a computerized tomography (CT) or MRI every year or two years,” he says. “But maybe with this blood test, they could be tested every six months. If it appears the risk is trending upward, maybe they can come in to see the doctor earlier.”
Tutino and his team will be finalizing a biomarker for the risk assessment for a brain aneurysm and then test it in new patients across the four medical centers.
“The whole treatment decision-making pipeline is all about assessing the risk of a future rupture,” Tutino says. “And it helps answer the question: Does the patient really need brain surgery? Considering roughly 1% of all known aneurysms per year end up rupturing, we want to use this blood test to figure out which ones are the riskiest.”