One area of medical research that gains a large portion of attention is diagnostic medicine. This arm of medical research is about to get a booster shot as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and several other notable backers have invested $100 million into Illumina’s GRAIL, a new startup focusing on a pioneer blood test that could detect any cancer early enough to be easily treatable.
One’s first thoughts surely are that this sounds like science fiction, but the biotech company says this new blood test could become reality in just a few short years. The startup is expected to have vast medical, economic, and societal implications, considering the technology really works.
The idea for GRAIL, aptly named as many physicians believe it could be the holy grail of medical discovery, was borne eighteen months ago. Illumina researchers discovered that the company’s DNA sequences had become increasingly powerful.
Having developed a greater understanding of how cancer work, researchers soon recognized an opportunity between their DNA tests and a phenomena that tumors put their DNA into circulation in very early cancer stages. The end game is a possibility to detect early stage cancer via a simple blood or urine test.
Cancers start out with the same genetic code as the people they afflict. When they become cancer is when a slow buildup of DNA mutations begin manifesting. These changes alter the cell’s responsiveness to our body’s orders, and as a result ignore commands to die or stop growing. Furthermore, they develop cloaking devices to avoid our immune system and can commandeer our energy stores. GRAIL researchers are hoping their tests will detect the tiny bits of changed DNA that is present in the blood from early stages of cancer.
The exciting test is not without its challenges or its critics. Thousands of questions about the test are being asked. For instance, will the test detect small cancers that would be kept in check by people’s immune systems, which means people may receive a treatment they did not need? Will it be flat out wrong at times? How can GRAIL prove that the test truly works? The list goes on and on.
Above all, the GRAIL test would also need to earn FDA approval. You can expect to see the GRAIL test popping up in comparison trials (i.e. being used alongside a mammogram for breast cancer or colonoscopy for colorectal cancer) very soon. To the critics of and doubters of GRAIL’s blood test, one of the company’s directors says, “The cancer world is changing. I think these things will converge pretty rapidly. If I was a big pharma with a minimally effective, medium toxicity chemotherapy drug I would be nervous. I think it’s going to be really a fascinating time.”