The biggest DNA sequencing firm in the world, with the help of big-name investors such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, is making a $100 million bet to find cancer through a blood test.

San Diego-based company Illumina is planning to sire startup firm Grail, which will develop a blood test costing $1,000 or less to detect various kinds of cancer prior to the rise of symptoms.

The test, dubbed as a “liquid biopsy,” will use high-speed DNA sequencing apparatuses to seek DNA traces from cancer cells in human blood.

Grail will be San Francisco-based and will have over $100 million in investment from majority owner Illumina, with funds from tech giants including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

 ‘Turning Point’ In The War Against Cancer?

The blood test is projected ready to hit the market by 2019, offered to doctors’ officers and potentially via a network of testing facilities.

Illumina CEO Jay Flatley recalled that the new test was developed some 18 months earlier.

"We've made tremendous progress, which gives us the confidence that we can get to the endpoint that we expect," he said in an interview, believing it will entail at least another year of research and development to refine the test and then another two years for clinical trials.

Grail intends the clinical trials to involve as many as 30,000 individuals as 300,000 human genomes. Based on Flatley’s estimates, the amount of DNA sequencing necessary for the studies would equal decoding the genomes of around 400,000 at good quality – three times as huge as the national cancer and disease study Genomics England in the United Kingdom.

Flatley also hoped the test will serve as a “turning point in the war on cancer.”

He thought that the cancer screening landscape is beset with failures. “With a few exceptions, screening tests have been invariably horrible,” he said.

The goal of Grail is a “pan-cancer” screening that is able to pick up most cancer types from one blood draw, although Flatley highlighted lung and breast cancer detection to likely be the first to be launched. The chief executive claimed to have taken the test’s early version, which he said returned no alarming result.

Illumina is touted as the only company at present to conduct sequencing at a low-enough cost for further research to be afforded. “We don’t think anyone else can do it at scale. And there are millions of lives at stake,” Flatley added.

 The Promise Of Liquid Biopsy

Illumina, however, did not invent the idea or concept behind the blood test, which were actually first developed at Johns Hopkins University, in Hong Kong, and other academic institutions.

It was an opportune time for the company since gene sequencing had recently become inexpensive enough to make for affordable cancer screening.

A DNA test that can detect different types of cancer could be groundbreaking as tumors found early can typically be treated using surgery or radiation.

The only liquid biopsy test for early detection in the United States comes from Pathway Genomics and is available at $699. However, given a muddled view of how well the test works, the firm received a warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that questions its claims.

Interest on cancer blood tests remains on the rise, which investors pitching millions to create them.

Startup Guardant, formed by former Illumina executives, announced last week that it raised $100 million. Its test is for measuring tumor DNA in cancer patients and can be used in place of invasive biopsy tests.

Cancer is the second leading killer in the U.S., closely following heart disease. The American Cancer Society projected last week a cancer diagnosis of close to 1.7 million cases this year, with death potential of almost 600,000.

ACS deputy chief medical officer J. Leonard Lichtenfeld cited the most difficult part about cancer screening. “The hardest part is not only demonstrating the ability to detect cancer early, but being able to say this knowledge is in fact meaningful in terms of patient outcomes,” he said.

Photo: Matt Ritchie | Flickr

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