In cancer, like most diseases, earlier detection leads to better outcomes. The sooner doctors know what kind of cancer they’re dealing with, the sooner they can start the appropriate treatment for that particular cancer. In essence, early detection buys both the doctor and the patient time. New cancer diagnostic startup Grail aims to buy that time, and it’s taking a novel approach to do it. The company has developed a way to detect cancer in a small sample of blood.
Grail is a spinout from gene-sequencing company Illumina. The company is based on the idea that cancer cells shed tiny amounts of DNA into the blood, which can be detected as telltale signs of cancer, Xconomy explains. The goal is to create detect cancer at this early stage while the disease is still treatable.
Start up biotech and medical diagnostics companies base their ambitions on promising science. But for Grail CEO Jeff Huber, the effort is also a personal one, Forbes explains. Huber lost his wife to colon cancer last year. There was no history of cancer in her family, and her symptoms of fatigue were initially diagnosed as signs of menopause. By the time the cancer was found, it had spread throughout her body. Grail’s technology was developed to help patients like Huber’s wife, and perhaps buy them some time.
Huber, a longtime Google employee, tells Forbes that he joined the Illumina effort because the company’s work in gene sequencing was the biological version of the big data work he did at Google. Illumina made its name using its technology to sequence genes. But the company had also been looking for other applications of its devices. One of those applications turned out to be detecting cancer in blood samples.
It’s still early to say for sure whether Grail will be successful in its approach to detecting cancer. Grail still needs to put its technology to the test in clinical trials. But the company’s ambitious goal already has big financial backers. In early 2016, Grail raised $100 million from a group of investors that includes Illumina, venture capital firm Arch Venture Partners, Jeff Bezos’s Bezos Expeditions, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Grail has set an aggressive timeline. Illumina says that tests in humans could start as soon as 2017, Xconomy reported. If all goes well, Grail expects its cancer diagnostic could be ready for the market by 2019.
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