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Bill Gates, Illumina To Fund $100M Blood Test For Cancer

The gene-sequencing company hopes the test will hit the market by 2019.

[Photo: Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Jeremy L. Grisham (RELEASED) via Wikimedia Commons]

Gene-sequencing giant Illumina is spinning out a new company, Grail, to develop a new blood test that can detect cancer.

Illumina announced at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference on Monday that it hopes the test will reach the market by 2019, and cost less than $1,000.

Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos's venture fund Bezos Expeditions, and Arch Venture Partners will also contribute to the venture. Grail will be based in San Francisco, and Illumina will retain majority control.

The goal for Grail's test is to catch cancer early enough that it can be treated effectively. That is the holy grail for biotech, as it offers a potential alternative to tissue-based biopsies. These biopsies are expensive, risky, and highly invasive. Most patients only receive one or two in the course of their treatment, which makes it a challenge for physicians to track the cancer as it spreads.

But the underlying research is nothing new. Scientists have known for several decades that a cancer patient's blood carries genetic fragments from dying cells of tumors. It has been a technological and scientific challenge, however, to separate the tiny fragments of the tumor in the blood.

A slew of startups in Silicon Valley, Boston, and other biotech hubs are working to bring a "liquid biopsy" to market. But most of these companies are focusing on treating patients who are already battling cancer, rather than on developing a screening test. There's simply more DNA with cancer-causing mutations in the blood of patients with more advanced cancers, making it easier to detect.

The only direct potential competitor to Grail is Pathway Genomics. But the company has yet to show significant evidence to back up its claims that it can detect cancer early.

According to Illumina CEO Jay Flatley, it has only recently become affordable enough to develop such a screening test. Illumina recently announced it could sequence the human genome for less than $1,000.