Freenome, a startup that wants to build out a blood test that screens for the earliest signs of cancer, just raised $US65 million.
The round is led by Andreessen Horowitz, as well as GV, Polaris Partners, Asset Management Ventures and others. Founders Fund and Data Collective Venture Capital, which invested in Freenome’s $US5.5 million seed round in June 2016, also joined in.
Freenome wants to use machine learning to crunch the human genome (the entire genetic material that gives our body instructions on how to live and grow) to look for any signs of cancer that are hanging out in the body. The new funding will go toward developing the software and validating the test through clinical trials, which are already underway.
“What we’re aiming to do is develop a test that healthy patients would take as part of their annual physical that tells you whether or not somebody’s going to have cancer,” Freenome CEO Gabe Otte told Business Insider in June.
Here’s how it would work: Your doctor would order you the test, and you’d go get your blood drawn like any other test for cholesterol or blood sugar levels. But instead of screening for the amount of cholesterol in your blood, the test is looking for biomarkers that could predispose you to cancer. Freenome is currently developing tests to screen for prostate, breast, lung, and colorectal cancer, among the most common types of cancer.
The tests are often referred to as “liquid biopsies,” since unlike solid-tumour biopsies, these “liquid” versions just pick up clues from the blood. They rely on something called “circulating tumour DNA,” or the bits of DNA that are released from dying tumour cells into the bloodstream.
Cancer blood tests have been gaining momentum in the past few years. Illumina spin-off Grail said in January that it’s seeking to raise at least $US1 billion to fund huge clinical trials to test out their cancer diagnostic test, and there are companies such Guardant Health and Foundation Medicine that use liquid biopsies to monitor tumour activity in people with cancer.
For right now, Freenome is running the clinical trials to make sure the test can accurately diagnose a patient, with the goal of getting FDA-approved. Otte said showing whether the test can improve the overall survival of patients with cancer is something the team is “actively exploring.”
Otte, now 28-years old, did an Apple internship before going to college. His computer-science professors told him to diversify and pick out another area to focus on so he wasn’t bored in class, so he chose biology.
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