Silicon Valley startup is using gene sequencing to identify in the bloodstream free-floating genetic material shed by tumors
There has been plenty of excitement about the new diagnostic technologies designed to identify circulating tumor cells in blood samples. Now, a well-funded Silicon Valley startup has developed a blood test that it says holds promise for detecting early-stage lung and other cancers.
Though experimental, the screening test—which uses gene sequencing to identify in the bloodstream cancer-signaling genetic material shed by tumors—would be a boon for clinical laboratories and health networks. It also could play a role in advancing precision medicine treatments and drug therapies.
GRAIL, a Menlo Park, Calif., life sciences company, presented its initial findings at the 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting in Chicago. Its lung cancer data is part of GRAIL’s ongoing Circulating Cell-Free Genome Atlas (CCGA) study, which aims to enroll 15,000 participants and investigate 20 different types of cancers.
“We’re excited that the initial results for the CCGA study show it is possible to detect early-state lung cancer from blood samples using genome sequencing,” said lead study author Geoffrey Oxnard, MD, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a Dana-Farber news release.
“There is an unmet need globally for early-detection tests for lung cancer that can be easily implemented by healthcare systems,” lead study author Geoffrey Oxnard, MD (above), said in the Dana-Farber news release. “These are promising early results and the next steps are to further optimize the assays and validate the results in a larger group of people.” (Photo copyright: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.)
According to the news release, researchers in this initial analysis explored the ability of three different prototype sequencing assays, each with 98% specificity, to detect lung cancer in blood samples:
“The initial results showed that all three assays could detect lung cancer with a low rate of false positives (in which a test indicates a person has cancer when there is no cancer),” the Dana-Farber news release noted.
Identifying Disease Risk Before Symptoms Appear
Screening tests help identify individuals who are not displaying disease symptoms but may be at high risk for developing a disease. GRAIL’s goal is to develop a test with a specificity of 99% or higher. This means no more than one out of 100 people would receive a false-positive.
Otis Brawley, MD, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer at the American Cancer Society, points out that specificity is important when developing a population-based screening test that ultimately would be given to large portions of the general public based on age, medical history, or other factors.
“I am much more concerned about specificity than sensitivity [true positive rate], and [GRAIL] exhibited extremely high specificity,” Brawley told Forbes. “You don’t want a lot of false alarms.”
Some cancer experts have a wait-and-see reaction to GRAIL’s initial results, due in part to the small sample size included in the sub-study. Benjamin Davies, MD, Associate Professor of Urology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and an expert on prostate cancer screening, told Forbes the early data was “compelling,” but the number of patients in the study was too small to generate excitement.
Oxnard, however, believes the initial results validate the promise of GRAIL’s blood screening test project.
“I was a skeptic two years ago,” Oxnard, a GRAIL consultant, told Forbes. “I think these data need to put a lot of the skepticism to rest. It can be done. This is proof you can find cancer in the blood, you can find advanced cancer, therefore this has legs. This has a real future. It’s going to be many steps down the line, but this deserves further investigation and should move forward.”
Researchers next plan to verify the initial results in an independent group of 1,000 CCGA participants as part of the same sub-study. They then will attempt to optimize the assays before validating them in a larger data set from CCGA, the Dana-Farber news release explained.
Illumina, a sequencing-technology developer, formed GRAIL in 2016, with participating investments from Bill Gates, Bezos Expeditions and Sutter Hill Ventures. Since then, GRAIL has attracted other high-flying investors, including Amazon, Merck, Johnson and Johnson, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Forbes notes that as of 2018 GRAIL has raised $1.6 billion in venture capital and has a $3.2 billion valuation, according to private market data firm Pitchbook. Last year, GRAIL merged with Hong Kong-based Cirina Ltd., a privately held company also focused on the early detection of cancer.
While GRAIL’s projects hold promise, anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratories may be wise to temper their enthusiasm until more research is done.
“We all would like to dream that someday you’d be able to diagnose cancer with a blood test,” Eric Topol, MD, Executive Vice President and Professor of Molecular Medicine at Scripps Research, told Forbes. Topol says he’s “encouraged” by GRAIL’s methodical approach, but warns: “We’re at the earliest stage of that.”
—Andrea Downing Peck
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Few anatomical tools hold more potential to revolutionize the science of diagnostics than biomarkers, and pathologists and medical laboratories will be first in line to put these powerful tools to use helping patients with chronic diseases
There’s good news for both anatomic pathology laboratories and medical laboratories worldwide. Large numbers of clinically-useful new biomarkers continue to be validated and are in development for use in diagnostic tests and therapeutic drugs.
Clinical laboratories rely on biomarkers for pathology tests and procedures that track and identify infections and disease during the diagnostic process. Thus, trends that highlight the critical role biomarkers play in medical research are particularly relevant to pathology groups and medical laboratories.
Here’s an overview of critical trends in biomarker research and development that promise to improve diagnosis and treatment of chronic disease.
Emerging Use of Predictive Biomarkers in Precision Medicine
Recent advances in whole genome sequencing are aiding the development of highly accurate diagnostics and treatment plans that involve the development and use of Predictive Biomarkers that improve Precision Medicine (PM).
PM involves an approach to healthcare that is fine-tuned to each patient’s unique condition and physiology. As opposed to the conventional one-size-fits-all approach, which looks at the best options for the average person without examining variations in individual patients.
Predictive biomarkers identify individuals who will most likely respond either favorably or unfavorably to a drug or course of treatment. This improves a patient’s chance to receive benefit or avoid harm and goes to the root of Precision Medicine. (Image copyright: Pennside Partners.)
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines PM as “an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that considers individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.” It gives physicians and researchers the ability to more accurately forecast which prevention tactics and treatments will be optimal for certain patients.
Combining Drugs for Specific Outcomes
Cancer treatment will be complimented by the utilization of combination drugs that include two or more active pharmaceutical ingredients. Many drug trials are currently being performed to determine which combination of drugs will be the most favorable for specific cancers.
Combination drugs should become crucial in the treatment of different cancers treatments, such as immunotherapy, which involves treating disease by inducing, enhancing, or suppressing an immune response.
Biomarkers associated with certain cancers may enable physicians and researchers to determine which combination drugs will work best for each individual patient.
Developing More Effective Diagnostics
In Vitro diagnostics (IVDs) are poised for massive growth in market share. A report by Allied Market Research, states the worldwide IVD market will reach $81.3 billion by 2022. It noted that IVD techniques in which bodily fluids, such as blood, urine, stool, and sputum are tested to detect disease, conditions, and infections include important technologies such as:
Allied Market Research expects growth of the IVD market to result from these factors:
- Increases in chronic and infectious diseases;
- An aging population;
- Growing knowledge of rare diseases; and
- Increasing use of personalized medicines.
The capability to sequence the human genome is further adding to improvements in diagnostic development. Pharmaceutical companies can generate diagnostic counterparts alongside related drugs.
Biopsies from Fluid Sources
Millions of dollars have been spent on developing liquid biopsies that detect cancer from simple blood draws. The National Cancer Institute Dictionary of Cancer Terms defines a liquid biopsy as “a test done on a sample of blood to look for cancer cells from a tumor that are circulating in the blood or for pieces of DNA from tumor cells that are in the blood.”
At present, liquid biopsies are typically used only in the treatment and monitoring of cancers already diagnosed. Companies such as Grail, a spinoff of Illumina, and Guardant Health are striving to develop ways to make liquid biopsies a crucial part of cancer detection in the early stages, increasing long-term survival rates.
“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, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at Grail.
Grail hopes to market a pan-cancer screening test that will measure circulating nucleic acids in the blood to detect the presence of cancer in patients who are experiencing no symptoms of the disease.
Clinical Trials and Precision Medicine
The Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), launched by the federal government in 2015, investigates ways to create tailor-made treatments and prevention strategies for patients based on their distinctive attributes.
Two ongoing studies involved in PMI research are MATCH and TAPUR:
- MATCH (Molecular Analysis for Therapy Choice) is a clinical trial run by The National Cancer Institute. The researchers are studying tumors to learn if they possess gene abnormalities that are treatable by known drugs.
- TAPUR (Targeted Agent and Profiling Utilization Registry), is a non-randomized clinical trial being conducted by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). The researchers are chronicling the safety and efficacy of available cancer drugs currently on the market.
New Tools for Pathologists and Clinical Laboratories
The attention and funds given to these types of projects expand the possibilities of being able to develop targeted therapies and treatments for patients. Such technological advancements could someday enable physicians to view and treat cancer as a product of specific gene mutations and not just a disease.
These trends will be crucial and favorable for clinical laboratories in the future. As tests and treatments become unique to individual patients, pathologists and clinical laboratories will be on the frontlines of providing advanced services to healthcare professionals.
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