When testing for the possibility of certain types of cancer, doctors often do surgery to retrieve biopsies for genetic analysis. But when a patient has already had cancer, and is testing for a possibility of recurrence, Helmy Eltoukhy, the co-founder of medical tech startup Guardant Health, believes that a blood test could replace a biopsy and avoid surgery.
Launching to the public today, Guardant Health has created the first pan-cancer blood test that helps oncologists prescribe the right treatments at the right time based on the changing genetics of a patient’s cancer. As Eltoukhy explains, biopsies don’t necessarily capture genetic changes that may emerge over time. Cancer cells are constantly mutating, he says, and these changes actually impact which type of cancer drug and treatment a patient should receive. But via the biopsy result, you can’t detect these changes in mutations very easily. “Oncologists are often driving blind with this information gap,” he says.
In contrast, the startup’s non-invasive blood test, called Guardant360, makes it much easier for physicians to more frequently obtain genetic information and match this to a potential cancer treatment without surgery. In addition to the core sequencing technology, this analysis and matching component for treatment is potentially life-saving. The company says currently 75 percent of cancer patients are taking ineffective drugs, because these drugs are not personalized to the exact type of mutation of the cancer.
The blood test reconstructs the relevant portions of a patient’s cancer genome using trace fragments of tumor DNA that are shed into the bloodstream. Unfortunately, we’re told that these fragments of tumor DNA are typically found at exceedingly low concentrations and current technologies cannot identify them. Guardant’s “Digital Sequencing” technology can detect this tumor DNA and sequence the genome to determine the type of treatment that matches the type of cancer.
According to the startup, recent clinical studies in cancer centers in the U.S. used Guardant to test and treat for the top five cancers (breast, lung, colorectal, skin and prostate) have gone well. In the test, 250 who had varieties of the cancers mentioned above, used Guardant360 and nearly 90 percent of all patients’ tumors mutations could be detected in blood, and treated accordingly.
The company is also announcing today that it has received $10 million in funding from Sequoia Capital and other undisclosed investors. “We believe this is game changing to cancer treatment,” Sequoia partner Warren Hogarth says.
Beyond just the technology, the talent behind the startup is incredible, he explains. Eltoukhy received his PhD, MS and BS degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford, and subsequently joined the Stanford Genome Technology Center in 2006 to work on low-cost DNA sequencing technologies. At SGTC, he developed the first semiconductor sequencing platform and first base-calling algorithm for next-gen sequencing. Fellow co-founder and PhD AmirAli Talasaz also worked at the SGTC, and has been a serial entrepreneur in the sample preparation and clinical research fields.
Hogarth also cites the power of Natera, another Sequoia-backed company, and sees parallels with Guardant. Foundation Medicine, which just made its debut on the public markets, is taking a similar approach to cancer treatment.
Guardant declined to name which cancer centers are using its test, but we hear it’s a who’s who of the best treatment centers in the U.S. The company also has state and federal approvals for the test.