Detecting the presence of tumour cells through blood analysis is a field that is currently arousing enthusiasm among the medical science community and attracting e-health investors and entrepreneurs.
Blood sample analysis really seems to be gaining ground as an effective means of detecting cancer. After Grail, a new startup launched by San Diego, California-based biotechnology company Illumina, garnered sizeable investment from Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos in mid-January in order to further develop the technology, Silicon Valley startup Guardant Health has become the latest diagnostics pioneer to arouse investor interest. The startup has raised $100 million to develop Guardant360, DNA analysis software that can detect small fragments of cancerous tumour cells from a blood sample.
The medical technique that has traditionally been used to find cancerous tumours is biopsy. This involves surgically removing a small piece of an organ or tissue in order to examine it for the presence of cancerous mutations. However, this approach carries two disadvantages: it is invasive for the patient and expensive for the health system, not to mention the risk of post-operative complications. Most cancer patients only undergo a biopsy once or twice during the course of their treatment, which makes it difficult to track how the cancer is responding to treatment over time. Using the new ‘liquid biopsy’ approach – i.e. working from a blood sample – means however that cancers can be identified at an earlier stage than a biopsy would allow.
Continual scientific advances
The idea of using blood samples to improve cancer detection is not new. The method goes back to the 1990s, when scientists discovered that the blood of a patient suffering from cancer contained tumour cells. The problem however was how to isolate these cells, which are very few in number compared to the healthy cells. This requires a highly sophisticated test.
There has been a great deal of progress in recent years. In 2014, French company Rarecells Diagnostic carried out tests which proved conclusive on over 200 patients. Also in France, early last year the Curie Institute also carried out conclusive tests. Meanwhile Guardant was one of the first firms to take the technology into hospitals in the United States. The company claims that Guardant360 is already being used to examine and monitor 20,000 patients per year. The blood-based tumour cancer-screening technique is nevertheless still in its infancy and for the moment tissue biopsies remain the most common and most reliable method.
An already competitive market
The cost of the tumour-sequencing technique developed by Guardant Health is still high, running to $5400 per patient. Though the market is still very young, competition has been hotting up. Apart from Grail, a number of other biotech companies are today developing their own techniques for detecting cancer through blood samples. These include Redwood City, California-based Genomic Health, Massachusetts-based RainDance Technologies, and San Diego firm Trovagene, which combines urine analysis with blood sample testing.
The chances of a patient making a full recovery from cancer depend to a large extent on the stage at which their condition is detected. Early diagnosis is therefore often crucial in saving lives. It is therefore unsurprising that a great deal of interest is being shown in these techniques among the medical science community and that this field is attracting investors and other e-health sector players.