A predicted 246,713 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Spain in 2020. This estimate was made by the Spanish Medical Oncology Association (SEOM) in its report “2016 Cancer Statistics in Spain”, with calculations based on United Nations demographic forecasts. According to the SEOM, one out of three people will develop a tumor in their lifetime, with the most frequent being colon, prostate and lung tumors in both genders.
The incidence of cancer totaled 215,534 new cases in 2012, according to data for that year. The SEOM explains the rise in tumor diagnoses by factors such as population growth, its progressive aging, lifestyle habits and early detection or screening methods, capable of catching the disease earlier. Among other techniques, one known as the liquid biopsy makes it possible to screen for the presence of circulating tumor cells with a simple blood test.
Thanks to this method, envisioned by T.R. Ashworth nearly 150 years ago, it is now feasible to not only give an early diagnosis but also measure tumor mutations in blood. In other words, liquid biopsies are able to take a snapshot of the current state of an oncological disease. With the help of genomic sequencing, the technique evaluates the dynamics of the disease and detects changes in a tumor before the first clinical signs appear. As Victor Velculescu, professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University states, “using this kind of non-invasive approach for early diagnosis has become the Holy Grail for cancer treatment”. This technique, in which Spain is a pioneer for application in colorectal cancer, has been in the media spotlight in recent weeks.
Illumina, specialized in DNA sequencing, has launched GRAIL, an attempt to use biotechnology to find the “Holy Grail” that will improve detection of malignant tumors. The challenge it faces is daunting; the company means to develop a single test to diagnose any type of cancer through a liquid biopsy. Its efforts will be aided by two key figures from the technology sector: Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. The idea is to fight a disease that affects 8.2 million people around the world every year.
According to an Illumina statement, “Detecting cancer in its earliest stages radically improves long-term survival. Therefore, successful development of a pan-cancer diagnostic test for asymptomatic individuals would mark the first great turning point in the fight against overall cancer mortality”. The start-up has received initial economic support of 100 million dollars thanks to a Series A round of financing, in which Bezos Expeditions, Bill Gates, ARCH Venture Partners and Sutter Hill Ventures have all taken part.
With the launch of GRAIL, the biotechnology sector is repositioning its focus on liquid biopsies, a technique that could become the “holy grail” of the fight against cancer. Advancement in early diagnosis through projects such as this is also supported by oncology experts such as Dr. Josep Baselga, medical director of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York, where he is contributing to Illumina’s new start-up as an advisor. The entrance of iconic figures from the world of technology such as Gates or Bezos also translates into a new stream of backing for the biotech industry, as already occurred with the initiatives of Google with the launch of Calico, a company devoted to combating the effects of aging.