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Greenville Business Magazine

Victory ExoFibres Develops Diagnostic Tests for Cancer

May 24, 2023 12:47PM ● By Angelia Davis

Terri Bruce’s longtime interest in how cells communicate has been transfigured into a business that develops screenings and diagnostics for different kinds of cancer.

Bruce is the founder and CEO of Victory ExoFibres. She has developed an exosome and viral particle isolation technology to develop screenings and diagnostics for different cancers.

The evolution of Bruce’s work into a business was partly inspired by her younger brother, Greg Foster, who died in 2019. He had brain cancer.

Bruce is a research assistant professor and the director of the Light Imaging Facility at Clemson University.

With a background in cell biology and chemical engineering, Bruce gained an interest in how cells communicate back and forth with one another, as she was pursuing her doctorate. 

“I became particularly interested in what we call exosomes or extracellular vesicles,” Bruce said. “I was very inspired by the work of Carol Parent at the NIH (National Institutes of Health).”

At that time, Bruce said, Parent was beginning to look at how a particular amoeba would leave a trail of bread crumbs.

“It’s called dictyostelium discoiduem, and normally it lives as a single cell organism, but when sources are limited and things like that, lots of them will come together in a group,” she said.

Exosome Extracellular Vesicles (EVs) are lipid droplets that all cells secrete. They can have, among other things, DNA, RNA, and proteins.

“They also have on the outside proteins and lipid rafts that are essential for signaling and uptake. They also have like a ZIP code on themselves that highlights what type of cell they came from,” Bruce said.

“Exosomes are very tiny – like 100 to 200 nanometers and very hard to get out so they can be studied.”

Bruce’s students would spend mornings using ultracentrifugations to extract exosomes. 

“To get these tiny things you had to go through lots of different steps of and then you end up about 3½  hours later with some exosomes,” she said. “What you end up with on the back end of that is vesicles, but they’re still a little bit dirty because it’s not a real precise method and there’s not a whole lot of them.”

It was not inspiring, to say the least, Bruce said, and “it was something that was really slowing us down.

“I just felt like we could do better, that I can put my chemical engineering stuff to mind and we can do better.”

She did with the help of Ken Marcus, an analytical chemist in Clemson University’s Department of Chemistry.

That kind of started Bruce’s journey on the path of developing the isolation protocol for the EVs. That’s also about the same time that Greg Foster, her younger brother, was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“My whole idea of what I was doing and why really changed significantly because of  a lot of the discussions we had with doctors and oncologists, which in particular were, ‘I wish we’d caught this a little sooner,’” Bruce said. “I really started thinking about using exosome vesicles as a species for screening for different kinds of cancer.”

At that time, though, Bruce said she could not see herself working on brain cancers. It was too close to home. 

She chose to initially focus on ovarian cancer because it’s one that, if caught early, has a high remission rate. 

Foster was a businessman. He’d earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Georgia Tech and an MBA from Harvard. He’d been involved in a lot of startups and entrepreneurial projects, Bruce said. At the time of his diagnosis, he was well into a startup, BrightWhistle, described as a digital marketing platform for health insurers and healthcare providers to generate sales leads, according to a 2014 article in The Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Bruce shared with Foster what they were doing and her thoughts on taking isolated exosomes for use in diagnostics. He invited Bruce to have lunch with him and some of his friends in the business community in Atlanta. She did.

“They all agreed, ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve got to start a business. You’ve got to at least try,” Bruce said. “I was like, ‘Ok, Ok.’”

Foster, she said, from the very beginning was her biggest cheerleader .

He was also influential in the name of his sister’s company.

When he began having surgeries at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, he commandeered the V-sign for victory, Bruce said. Toward the end of his life, when he could not communicate as well, “we would just look at each other and put a V up,” Bruce said.

“That was our sign,” she said. “That’s where the Victory is from.” 

The Exofibres in the company name is from the exosome fiber capture.

Clemson University Research Foundation alerted Victory Exofibres to the Inaugural $30K PowerUp Competition and encouraged them to apply.

“They thought that we would be competitive in it and that it would be a good fit for us,” Bruce said.

The $30K PowerUp Competition for startups headquartered in South Carolina is offering entrepreneurs a chance at prizes ranging from $5,000 to $15,000.

Victory ExoFibres decided to apply for the potential funding and the exposure.

The competition, she said, is also important for attracting future talent and network connections. 

Victory ExoFibres is now working on different pathways simultaneously.

The first are the 15-minute isolation kits that will be sold. These kits are what other laboratories can use.

“We’ve designed them to be something that incorporates easily into the normal workflows that most molecular biology labs are used to performing anyways,” she said.

The second pathway for Victory ExoFibres is diagnostics and the development of a screening test. For that, Bruce has been working primarily with Dr. Larry Puls, a gynecological oncologist at Prisma Health.

”We’re going to be taking the work that I do as a professor, that I integrate with Puls with patient information, and developing a diagnostic test for screening for early signs of ovarian cancer using exosomes,” Bruce said.

Bruce said when she and Puls first started talking, he’d shared how tired he was of getting to know the women and realizing they’ve come to him too late.

“He said, ‘I’m tired of seeing women die over something that if they’d come six months earlier or a year earlier, we could have treated,’” Bruce said.

“He’s a fantastic physician/healer, and that hurts his spirit. I get that because I went through that with Greg, if we had just caught it a little bit earlier, maybe,” she said.