Monday, January 11, 2016

A Simple Blood Test For Every Form of Cancer

Catching cancer early is an incredible challenge, but a new way to detect it in the blood would have the potential to totally revolutionize cancer treatment in just a few years.

Illumina, the $25 billion maker of gene sequencing technology, has created a new company that's trying to invent a blood test to identify all cancers in their early stages, something that would be a tremendous help in diagnosing the illness before it is too difficult to treat effectively.

The team behind the announcement is not the first to attempt something of this nature, and previous efforts by other companies have been criticized for having too little research behind them or focusing too much on detection rather than treatment. Crucially, this blood test does not exist yet, and while scientists will be working furiously to try to make it happen, it doesn't mean they will succeed.

But this latest bet is one of the best-funded, with a number of illustrious scientists already involved — and Illumina's backing may give it a critical boost.

The new company, called Grail (as in, it's trying to achieve something considered the Holy Grail for cancer researchers) hopes to have a pan-cancer blood test by 2019, an extremely ambitious goal.

That would mean that anyone could add such a test onto their annual physical — no need for separate tests for different types of lung cancer, prostate cancer, or any other form of the illness.

Grail is launching with $100 million in Series A financing, backed by Illumina, Bill Gates, Sutter Hill Ventures, and Jeff Bezos' Bezos Expeditions. Illumina and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are partnering to help launch a study to see if Grail's test can actually do what they hope it will do.

"We look forward to a day in the not too distant future where there would be a simple blood test for every form of cancer," Dr. Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute and a board member of Grail, said on a press call on Sunday.

The key to this effort is the ability to detect what's known as circulating tumor DNA, or CTDNA. In recent years, doctors have discovered that the genetic material from cancerous tumors starts circulating in our bodies.

"It's abundantly clear that these molecules are in the blood," Illumina CEO Jay Flatley said on the call. (...)

Flatley is well aware of the minefield Grail is entering. "If you look at this business, it’s littered with failures. With a few exceptions, screening tests have been invariably horrible," he told the MIT Technology Review. "It’s a big challenge."

by Kevin Loria, Tech Insider |  Read more:
Image: Shutterstock