Illumina’s bid to beat cancer with DNA tests

The DNA sequencing giant will launch a new company, Grail, to develop blood tests to detect cancer

By Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review

illuminax519_0The world’s largest DNA sequencing company says it will form a new company to develop blood tests that cost $1,000 or less and can detect many types of cancer before symptoms arise.

Illumina, based in San Diego, said its blood tests should reach the market by 2019, and would be offered through doctors’ offices or possibly a network of testing centers.

The spin-off’s name, Grail, reflects surging expectations around new types of DNA tests that might do more to defeat cancer than the more than $90 billion spent each year by doctors and hospitals on cancer drugs. Illumina CEO Jay Flatley says he hopes the tests could be a “turning point in the war on cancer.”

The startup will be based in San Francisco and has raised more than $100 million from Illumina as well as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos’s venture fund, Bezos Expeditions, and Arch Venture Partners. Illumina will retain majority control.

The testing concept being pursued by Illumina, sometimes called a “liquid biopsy,” is to use high-speed DNA sequencing machines to scour a person’s blood for fragments of DNA released by cancer cells. If DNA with cancer-causing mutations is present, it often indicates a tumor is already forming, even if it’s too small to cause symptoms or be seen on an imaging machine.

Illumina didn’t invent the idea for the tests, which were first developed by academic centers including at Johns Hopkins University (see “Spotting Cancer in a Vial of Blood”) and in Hong Kong (see “Liquid Biopsy”). But Flatley says only recently has gene-sequencing become inexpensive enough to try to make the cancer screening tests affordable. Read more …

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