A startup backed by Bill Gates that's building an early cancer detection test just pulled off a big deal

A startup that wants to build a blood test to screen for cancer just merged with a Hong Kong-based company that's also looking at early cancer detection.

Grail and Cirina are combining, the companies announced Wednesday. Terms of the merger weren't given.

Cirina was cofounded by Dennis Lo, a professor of chemical pathology, who is known for his work on noninvasive prenatal testing. The test uses a sample of blood to screen for cell-free DNA that can check for chromosomal problems including Down syndrome.

The hope is to possibly translate that work into other disease areas, including early cancer detection. Lo is joining Grail's scientific advisory board as part of the merger. The move also will help Grail one day commercialize in Asia.

Since it got its start in 2016, Grail has raised more than $1 billion, from the likes of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, along with big names from the pharmaceutical, tech, and healthcare industries, including Johnson & Johnson Innovation, ARCH Venture Partners, Amazon, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene, and Merck.

The idea behind a cancer-screening test is to identify the tiny bits of cancer DNA that are hanging out in our blood but are now undetectable. If companies like Grail are successful, they would be the first to pull off a cancer-detecting blood test that works proactively. The concept is similar to liquid biopsy tests, which use blood samples to sequence genetic information in that blood to figure out how tumors are responding to a certain cancer therapy.

With one sample of blood (the same you might have drawn at the doctor's to check your cholesterol or blood-sugar levels), Grail's plan is to sequence and screen for those bits with the hope that it will help catch cancer before it starts to be a full-blown problem.

Getting to that point won't be easy, and Grail has started recruiting for large clincal trials, including one that plans to enroll 120,000 women.

June 2, 2017


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