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Image: Illumina sequencer
Illumina’s gene sequencers are already being used to study cancer cells, and the new venture known as Grail is expected to take the field to the next level. (Credit: Illumina)

One of the giants of gene sequencing, Illumina, has spun off a new $100 million company called Grail to create an all-in-one blood test for cancer – and its investors include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

The name reflects the view that such a blood test is a “holy grail” for cancer diagnosis. Grail would use ultra-deep gene sequencing to look for the characteristic nucleic acids that are shed into the blood by tumors. Those traces are known as circulating tumor DNA, or ctDNA.

If the technology is perfected, it could offer a non-invasive way to find out if a patient has cancer well before symptoms appear. That would better the chances for treatment.

“We hope today is a turning point in the war on cancer,” Jay Flatley, Illumina’s CEO and Grail’s chairman of the board, said Sunday in a news release. “By enabling the early detection of cancer in asymptomatic individuals through a simple blood screen, we aim to massively decrease cancer mortality by detecting the disease at a curable stage.”

Other companies are working on similar types of screening tools, known as “liquid biopsies.” A $699 cancer test is already on the market from Pathway Genomics, but there are concerns about its usefulness.

Another biotech startup, Guardant Health, has developed a ctDNA test to measure tumor activity in patients already known to have cancer. Last week, Guardant said it raised almost $100 million in its latest funding round.

Grail has an advantage in Illumina’s status as the dominant manufacturer of gene-sequencing equipment. The San Diego-based company says it will own the majority share of Grail. Other investors include Arch Venture Partners, Bill Gates, Bezos Expeditions and Sutter Hill Ventures, Illumina says.

Gates and Bezos have made other significant investments in biotech: Editas Medicine, a gene-editing startup backed by Gates, filed documents last week in preparation for an initial public offering. The best-known venture backed by Bezos is Juno Therapeutics, a Seattle-based cancer research firm.

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