Blood Test For Cancer Being Developed By Grail, Illumina’s New Startup Is Backed By Major Investors

A blood test for cancer may someday become reality. Illumina, the world’s largest DNA sequencing company, is investing in a new startup named Grail to research and develop the technology.

Grail to create method to test for cancer using blood.
Grail, Illumina's startup company, will be working to develop a blood test for cancer. [Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images]

In a related Inquisitr report, a British organization named Medical Detection Dogs recently held a large clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of cancer-smelling dogs.

A year and a half ago, researchers at Illumina came up with the idea for a test for cancer while trying the company’s DNA sequencers on blood. They discovered that as the sequencer’s power increased, they could see small amounts of DNA in the samples.

The high-speed sequencing machines have the capability to look for DNA released by cancer cells in a person’s blood. If cancer DNA is found, it may indicate a tumor is forming, one that is too small for an imaging machine to see or cause symptoms. Ideally, the blood test would detect any kind of cancer, not just one particular type.

“Everything here is directed at being a pan-cancer test, something that is a universal test,” said Jay Flatley, Illumina’s chief executive.

According to Flatley, gene-sequencing technology has only recently become affordable enough to make cancer blood tests possible on a large scale. Illumina estimates the test will cost $1,000 or less once it becomes available.

“If this pans out, this could be a real game changer,” said Dr. José Baselga, the physician in chief at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Baselga will also be in charge of Grail’s science advisory board.

Known for pioneering cheap, efficient methods for the sequencing of DNA, Illumina is investing $100 million into Grail with the prospect of developing an accurate blood test for cancer. As reported by Forbes, Illumina will be the majority shareholder, while other financial backers include Sutter Hill Ventures, Arch Ventures, Bezos Expeditions, and Bill Gates.

Robert Nelsen, a partner at Arch, says they invested a lot of money in Grail and can only hope the cancer blood test will eventually work.

“It remains to be proven, 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,” he said.

Nelsen and Arch have also helped fund other startups, including cancer company Juno Therapeutics and Denali Therapeutics, which is dedicated to defeating brain diseases.

Other companies are currently developing similar cancer tests. Often dubbed a “liquid biopsy,” they use a blood sample to replace or supplement a traditional biopsy. Guardant Health and Exosome Diagnostics have each raised substantial amounts of money to pursue the research.

However, unlike the blood tests that Grail wants to develop, liquid biopsies are used for patients already diagnosed with cancer. The tests are mainly used to determine specific changes in the tumor while helping select the correct drugs to use. They are also used to monitor if a particular treatment is working.

The ultimate goal of many liquid biopsy companies is to detect cancer early, at a time when it is easily treatable. Using blood to find cancer can be somewhat tricky because many cells, not just cancerous ones, discharge DNA.

Dr. Luis A, Diaz Jr., a professor at John Hopkins, says polyps, moles, and other benign growths also have similar mutations as those found in malignant tumors. Additionally, current liquid biopsy technology is limited and cannot detect multiple cell mutations.

Grail working on project to create blood test capable of detecting any type of cancer.
Several biotechnology companies have been working on developing a blood test that can detect early-stage cancer.[Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Cancer Research UK]

Some health experts say people need to be cautious before accepting treatment based on the results of any new type of cancer test. Often, early-stage cancers never adversely affect the body, but doctors who act too quickly may expose patients to the damaging side effects of treatment.

Citing past denials of similar tests by the Food and Drug Administration, some fear the blood test for cancer being developed by Grail will never get approved by the agency. Nonetheless, Flatley is confident they can overcome any regulatory hurdles.

The new company plans intensive DNA sequencing on 30,000 to 50,000 people over time to determine the specific mutation signatures that indicate cancer. The procedure would use “deep” sequencing to verify numerous mutations.

Currently, over $90 billion is spent annually by health practitioners on cancer drugs. Illumina hopes the blood test that Grail creates will help win the war against the disease.

Once the technology is developed by Grail, Illumina predicts it will reach the market by 2019 and be offered by doctors’ offices or a network of testing centers. Should an affordable DNA sequencing method help develop a single blood test for cancer, the medical, economic and societal implications would be enormous.

[Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images]