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Illumina's CEO Jay Flatley with the firm's market-leading DNA sequencing machine

Blood test could soon detect symptomless early stage cancers

Detecting early stage cancer when no symptoms have yet developed could soon be possible with a simple blood test, thanks to a new venture backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. 

DNA sequencing firm Illumina is behind the $100m (£70m) project - dubbed Grail - which hopes to have cancer screening technology in the market by 2019.

The technology would detect fragments of cancer genes released by tumours into the bloodstream. The goal is to detect the deadly disease in the earliest stages when chances of a successful treatment and survival are high.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, as well as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are among Grail’s investors.

Illumina’s Chief Executive Jay Flatley said the firm has been working on the technology for more than 18 months.

"We've made tremendous progress, which gives us the confidence that we can get to the endpoint that we expect," said Flatley, who will also serve as the chairman of the Grail project.

The firm, aiming to sell the test for about $500, hopes to win approval of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, to get the FDA aboard, extensive testing will be required to prove the reliability of the technology.

Last year, the agency criticised Illumina’s rival Pathway Genomics, which started offering similar tests to healthy people without conducting clinical trials. FDA said the firm may be harming public health by selling the test without ‘adequate clinical validation'.

Flatley said Illumina aims for a different approach and hopes to involve the FDA from the early stages. He said the firm will conduct clinical trials on some 300,000 human genomes to prove the technology can reliably detect various types of cancers.

Analysts estimate that about 38 companies globally are developing cancer blood tests based on DNA sequencing and that the market could be worth $10bn by 2020. Most firms, however, are focusing on the so-called liquid biopsies that could be used on patients already diagnosed with cancer to monitor their response to treatment and not to screen healthy individuals.



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