A Single Blood Test For All Cancers?

What if a simple blood test could detect any cancer early, when it was still easy to treat?

It sounds like science fiction. But Illumina ILMN +5.20%, the $24 billion (market cap) biotechnology company that has pioneered cheap, efficient sequencing of DNA, says it could be a reality in a few years. It is launching a new startup, GRAIL (because such a test would be a holy grail for cancer doctors), with $100 million in funding. Illumina will hold a majority share. Other backers include Sutter Hill Ventures, ARCH Ventures, Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions and Bill Gates. The startup could have vast medical, economic and societal implications–if the technology really works.

Jay Flatley Illumina CEO“Everything here is directed at being a pan-cancer test, something that is a universal test,” says Jay Flatley, who has been Illumina’s chief executive for sixteen years and has improved the power of DNA sequencing at a rate that exceeds improvements in microchips over the same period of time.

“It’s our largest investment ever,” says Robert Nelsen, a partner at ARCH, says of GRAIL. Nelsen helped found Illumina, and, more recently, some of the the most well-funded startups ever, including cancer company Juno Therapeutics, which raised $310 million before its IPO, and Denali Therapeutics, focused on brain diseases, which raised $217 million last year.
“It remains to be proven,” Nelsen asserts, “but it’s likely to be the case that you will be able to know deep and large amounts of information about multiple cancers with a single test.”

Flatley says that the idea for GRAIL was hatched eighteen months ago when Illumina researchers were trying the company’s DNA sequencers out on blood. They found that as the company’s sequencers became increasingly powerful, they were able to detect trace amounts of DNA in those samples.

Thank you to Matthew Herper, Forbes, for this excellent article.