A number of well-known investors have touted the lab test industry as a sector that is likely to see rapid growth in the next few years. The key question, of course, is which firms are going to emerge as leaders in the rapidly-evolving industry where firms of all sizes are vying for a slice of the multi-trillion dollar pie. Over the last few years, quite a few venture capitalists have put their bets down with Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, but her much-ballyhooed “hundreds of lab screenings from a single pin pick of blood” technology is now bogged down with developmental and regulatory problems. In a surprise move announced Sunday, gene-sequencing device maker Illumina announced it was teaming up with several tech industry heavyweights to launch a new venture to develop a blood test cancer screening.
San Diego-based Illumina is founding a new company named GRAIL with several other big name other investors, in yet another well-pedigreed effort to develop a blockbuster blood test for detecting, diagnosing and/or informing treatment of cancer.
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“We hope today is a turning point in the war on cancer,” noted Jay Flatley, Illumina CEO and Chairman of GRAIL. “By enabling the early detection of cancer in asymptomatic individuals through a simple blood screen, we aim to massively decrease cancer mortality by detecting the disease at a curable stage.”
According to Flatley, the blood test will screen people with no cancer symptoms and detect any possible cancerous growths at their earliest stages when they have a higher chance to be successfully treated. Flatley announced the launch of the venture at the opening of the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in the Bay Area on Sunday.
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Grail is majority owned by Illumina, and the new enterprise is backed by a substantial $100 million in initial financing. Arch Venture Partners is a lead investor, as is Bezos Expeditions, Bill Gates and Sutter Hill Ventures.
The new blood test is designed to detect cancer mutations in DNA fragments, identifying people who have active disease. Flatley noted in his comments that the startup will enjoy a “preferential economic relationship with Illumina”.
This is critical given that developing the test will require detailed analyses of many thousands of DNA fragments. According to Flatley, developing the new cancer blood test will require deep sequencing of between 100,000 to 300,000 human genomes.
Developing a cancer blood test is particularly difficult because of the issue of a false-positive result or identifying a cancer that will not lead to major health problems, but force patients to take further tests or diagnostic procedures that entail additional risks.
Keep in mind that a blood test blood test is generally preferred to other screening methods because it does not produce “suspicious findings” which can have a variety of causes. According to Flatley, with the new blood test, “we are actually measuring mutations from cancer cells,: and it is “a direct measure of the cancer itself.”
The goal is for the new cancer blood test to cost less than $1,000 when first introduced, and then the price will be reduced substantially over the next few years as the technology matures.
DNA-based cancer blood test could be on the market by 2019
Flatley also noted that Grail will need around another year to finalize the test before starting clinical trials in 2017. Assuming clinical success and regulatory approval, a “pan-cancer screening test” that could save tens of thousands of lives annually could be commercially available by 2019.