Company Bets on catching cancer early on with a ‘Liquid Biopsy’

Gene sequencing company Illumina is betting it can diagnose cancer in people long before they have any symptoms at all with a blood test called a liquid biopsy. The San Diego-based firm launched a spinoff company Sunday named Grail, with obvious references to the "Holy Grail."
"The holy grail in oncology has been the search for biomarkers that could reliably signal the presence of cancer at an early stage," said Dr. Richard Klausner, a former director of the National Cancer Institute who’s a member of the new company’s board of directors.
The plan is to use Illumina’s super-fast genetic sequencing technology to look for genetic material from tumor cells in peoples’ blood long before they have any evidence of cancer. The test would check for genetic mutations known to be found in tumors.
Something similar is already done sometimes in people who already have cancer. The liquid biopsies are used to see how well cancer treatment is working. Some big names in investing and cancer researcher are signing on for the enterprise.
They include Amazon founder Jeff Bezo’s Bezos Expeditions, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
"We hope today is a turning point in the war on cancer," said Jay Flatley, Illumina’s chief executive and chairman of Grail.
"By enabling the early detection of cancer in asymptomatic individuals through a simple blood screen, we aim to massively decrease cancer mortality by detecting the disease at a curable stage."
It will be years before any such test could be designed, and it would have to be tested in thousands of people before regulators could consider approving it.
Right now one of Illumina’s whole-genome tests costs about $1,000, so it would be a pricey cancer screening test unless that cost can be brought down.