Vials of blood in a lab

Can A Blood Test Detect Cancer Early? A Startup Is Raising $1 Billion To Try

Cancer continues to be a word that causes pain and fear. There is a great chance that you, or someone close to you, have been affected by some form of cancer. Statistics posted by the American Cancer Society estimate that there were nearly 1.7 million new cases of cancer in 2015, along with an estimated 600,000 deaths. Experts agree that the best chance someone affected by this malady has is early detection. A relatively new startup, named GRAIL, has set its sights on helping that cause by developing a blood test to detect cancer early, and is raising $1 billion for the effort.

Jeff Huber, a former Google employee, serves as the chief executive for GRAIL, Forbes reports. He helped lead the development of some of Google’s most iconic products, including Google Maps and their Ads product. GRAIL was started in late 2015 by their parent company, Illumina. Illumina is a company whose goal is to “apply innovative technologies to the analysis of genetic variation and function, making studies possible that were not even imaginable just a few years ago.” They have been studying the human genome to try and help all forms of medicine. Now, GRAIL will be spinning out to stand on its own, though Illumina will be keeping a 20 percent stake in the company. The announcement was posted on Business Wire and shared by Huber on Facebook.

More than just a desire to help his fellow man, Huber also has a personal reason for wanting to aid in the early cancer detection endeavor. His wife died of colon cancer on November 10, 2015, at the age of 46. “It’s very mission-driven for me,” he told Forbes in an interview.

Doctors stand and walk in hospital hallway
Early detection of cancer gives the patient the best chance. [Image by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

While GRAIL is hopeful and driven to find a way to use blood testing and genome mapping to detect cancer early, Huber knows that the venture is not going to be an easy one. He states that developing a blood test that can detect cancer in the earliest stages would take “ultra-intense genome sequencing and two or three orders of magnitude deeper than anyone else is doing.” He also acknowledges that cancer comes in many forms and they vary greatly.

“It is really driven by mutations. Every case of cancer is unique. It is a snowflake. Being able to [find it] with medical and statistical rigor drives clinical studies of unprecedented scale.”

In their press release, GRAIL said that it has received interest from investors for the $1 billion amount. This means that the money has not been received and the amount could change. They released the information to inform investors of their intentions and how they plan to use the money. This will give other investors the opportunity and information they may need to decide to invest also. The main investor has been pushed by Robert Nelsen, an ARCH venture capitalist. He has been involved with investments in other biotech companies such as Juno Therapeutics for cancer research and Denali Therapeutics for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Lab technician tests a blood sample
Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates invested $100 million in GRAIL [Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Diagnostics test for cancer and other diseases are not without their controversy as well. Some doctors feel that some of these procedures can sometimes cause unnecessary harm to patients. They use mammography for breast cancer and PSA for prostate cancer as examples. They also fear that these kinds of tests, like GRAIL’s blood test, may lead to patients being warned that they have cancer when they may not, or before anything can be done about it.

Even so, GRAIL is committed to finding such a test. They have already announced a 10,000-person clinical trial, and they expect that trials including hundreds of thousands will be necessary. They also know that better machine-learning technologies will need to come about for the blood test to be successful. It seems that a lot more is to come from this endeavor and what it may mean for cancer diagnosis in the future.

[Featured Image by David Silverman/Getty Images]