A novel effort from Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies to diagnose multiple diseases from a single blood test is a data challenge on the scale of Google search.
“Google categorized the world’s information on the internet. What we’re essentially trying to do with Microsoft is to catalog … what the interaction is between our immune system and all the diseases that they bind to,” said Adaptive CEO Chad Robins. “After we start building this map out disease by disease, this is actually a web-scale problem.”
Robins made the comments at the 2019 GeekWire Summit on Tuesday in Seattle during an interview with journalist Luke Timmerman, founder and editor of the Timmerman Report.
Rather than indexing web pages, Adaptive and Microsoft are using artificial intelligence to map out signals associated with diseases as well as the cell receptors that bind to them. The idea is to get a clear enough picture that the companies can produce what Robins called an “X-ray for the immune system.”
Unlike the human genome, which was mapped as part of the Human Genome Project, there is no map of the immune system. Seattle-based Adaptive aims to change that with technology that decodes the genetic information associated with T cells, which are vital to immune response.
“Adaptive went out to the trillion-dollar companies and said, ‘Who can partner with us on this? And who can put their massive machine learning capabilities and cloud compute onto this? Microsoft wound up being a great partner,” Robins said.
Once the companies have mapped the characteristics of several diseases, they aim to compare the immune sequences of individuals to that master map and look for indications of disease.
Eventually, the project could give rise to an “immune checkup” in which patients receive regular screening for early diagnosis of infectious disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders, which Robins said could happen in 6-to-8 years. But for now, they’re targeting diseases where early intervention leads to better outcomes.
They are initially focused on diagnosing type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and Lyme disease. In the case of Lyme disease, Robins said the current tests are “poor” and that the disease is often mistaken for the flu because the symptoms are similar.
Adaptive also partnered with Genentech to use the immune sequencing platform to develop new drugs. While therapeutics are generally more lucrative than diagnostics, Robins sees the potential for the Microsoft project to pay big returns.
“Ultimately, if this is part of primary care and you’re able to truly do an X-ray or a screen for the immune system, then that hits everyone in the world,” he said.
In January, the companies announced that the AI system was up and running. As part of the deal, Microsoft invested $45 million in Adaptive and the biotech startup committed to spending a minimum of $12 million on Azure cloud services over seven years.
Robins said the two companies could have their first test on the market by 2021.
Launched in 2009, Adaptive was founded on technology developed by Chad Robins’ brother, Harlan Robins, a former researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
While the company has yet to market a test from the Microsoft deal, it currently sells a $1,800 test called ClonoSEQ that looks for minimal residual disease in patients that have had multiple myeloma and B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Last month, Adaptive Biotechnologies signed a deal with Illumina, the largest genetic sequencing firm in the U.S., to produce kits that can read the immune system at labs across the country. Earlier this summer, the company raised $300 million in an initial public offering.