Illumina spin-off Grail aims to develop $1000 or less tests for early cancer diagnosis.

Early detection of cancer is often considered the holy grail of oncology, capable of saving both lives and billions of healthcare dollars. Now Illumina look set to wade into the liquid biopsy market with a new spin off company that will look to develop low cost cancer diagnostic tests. Aptly named ‘Grail’, the new company has recieved $100 million in startup funding from Illumina, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos’s venture fund, Bezos Expeditions, and Arch Venture Partners.

“If this pans out, this could be a real game changer,” said Dr. José Baselga, the physician in chief at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, who will head the company’s science advisory board.

The concept of liquid biopsy – a detailed screening of a patient’s blood to detect early signs of cancer before a patient experiences symptoms – has been around for a while. But Illumina CEO Jay Flatley says that the gene-sequencing technology needed to make cancer-screening tests affordable and fast has only recently become cost-effective. 

Illumina say that Grail’s blood tests should reach the market in 2019. But historically the world of pre-symptomatic screening for cancer has been dogged by problems and failures. Speaking to MIT Technology Review, Flatley said “If you look at this business, it’s littered with failures. With a few exceptions, screening tests have been invariably horrible.”

This latest launch continues a trend of innovation for Illumina, who already control a sizeable majority of the genome-sequencing market. Last year the company announced the launch of a new direct-to-consumer platform, Helix, often touted as an ‘app store for personal genomics’.

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