Illumina Inc., an American company that manufactures technology for use in the field of genetic research, is launching a spin-off company called Grail that will develop blood-based cancer diagnostics, expected to hit the market by the end of the decade.
Once the requisite clinical trials are completed, the service will become available through doctors‘ offices or possibly a network of testing centres for less than 1,000 US dollars.
The main goal of developing the new test is to take cancer screening to a whole new level. “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,” said Jay Flatley, Illumina CEO and chairman of the board at the newly formed Grail.
According to statistics, the main drivers behind the plummeting death rates from cancer are behavioural changes, such as decreased tobacco use, and improved screening technology, with drugs and other treatments playing only a modest role.
The forthcoming “liquid biopsy” service will use high-speed DNA sequencing 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 that a tumour is already forming, even if it’s too small to cause symptoms or be seen on an MRI.
Liquid biopsy tests have already been developed by several academic institutions and private enterprises around the world, but they’ve been either too expensive for general use, or not reliable enough to be approved by regulatory bodies.
In order to start marketing the new test to the public, Illumina will have to prove that it can not only detect cancer with a low rate of false positives (or negatives), but that this can actually decrease overall mortality.
Being one the very few companies with the funding and infrastructure to pull it off, Illumina will perform extensive clinical trials involving as many as 30,000 subjects to see if the new technique can catch different cancers earlier than established methods.
If everything goes as planned, this could, in all likelihood, be a real “turning point in the war on cancer”, noted Flatley in a press release.