Grail Beats Cancer with DNA Tests

What is it?

One of today’s most promising products might just be around the corner.. Our suffering and long battle with number one’s killing disease might finally come to an end. Jeff Huber, Grail’s CEO, lost his own wife to cancer and was determined to spin out a company that promised to detect and ultimately provide the tools to beat cancer before it could spread throughout a person’s body. With a background in massive data businesses at Google, including Google Ads, Apps, and Maps. At Grail, Huber moved from mapping the world to mapping genomes. Grail is developing blood tests that can detect many types of cancer before symptoms arise. Expectations that cancer blood tests will quickly turn into a multibillion-dollar industry has attracted growing interest from investors. Grail has raised more than $100 million from Illumina, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos’s venture fund, Bezos Expeditions, and Arch Venture Partners.

How does it work?

The testing concept is to use high-speed DNA sequencing machines to cleanse 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. A DNA test able to pick up many kinds of cancer could be revolutionary because tumors caught early can often be cured with surgery or radiation.

Sounds promising, but is this all not too good to be true?

Any developer of a screening test for cancer faces challenging obstacles. How often will the test find cancer, and how often will it give a wrong result? Is it truly reliable? What’s more, even tests that do discover cancer early can turn into medical disasters if patients end up getting aggressive and costly treatment for cancers that won’t kill them. As Huber states: “If you look at this business, it’s littered with failures. With a few exceptions, screening tests have been invariably horrible,”. To prove early detection is possible, Grail will spend millions on organizing clinical trials involving as many as 30,000 people. It will test all of them and then see if the tests are able to catch cancer earlier than established methods. Grail is the only company currently able to implement sequencing technology at a cost that’s low enough to carry out such studies and bring an inexpensive test to market. Grail has a price advantage because it is a spin-off of Illumina, a company that makes and sells more than about $2 billion worth of DNA sequencing instruments, chemicals, and test kits annually to university scientists and other labs.

A bright future ahead?

Eventually, the DNA tests will be available in every hospital in the US and every person should be allowed to take it at a price of 600 dollar. Timing matters, and the intersection of genome sequencing and the computation that is possible now, with new technologies like machine learning, it feels like we are at the right time to make this happen. If Grail succeeds, in the future, get a cancer diagnosis to being about as eventful as having the flu, that would be a good outcome.


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