One of the biggest stories so far out of the world's largest cancer conference doesn't have to do with a groundbreaking drug, but rather a revolutionary new way of genetically sequencing patients' cancers that could reduce the need for painful and pricey biopsies.
The test in question is the brainchild of Silicon Valley biotech upstart Guardant Health, which announced new data from a massive, 15,191-patient study of its Guardant360 "liquid biopsy" technology during the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago this weekend.
Traditional biopsies involve extracting tissue from cancer patients' tumors through surgery or a needle, often to sequence a cancer's genetic makeup in order to match it to the most effective therapy for that particular cancer. They're invasive procedures that can be dangerous, or even impossible if there's insufficient tissue sample (not to mention extremely expensive depending on the cancer type).
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"We looked at a numbers of tissue biopsies," said Guardant CEO Helmy Eltoukhy, who led the firm to a $100 million Series D funding round earlier this year, in an interview with Fortune. "In lung cancer, they cost $14,000 per patient and have a 19% complication rate, which is horrendous."
Guardant360 (whose topline price tag is $5,800) instead looks for this same genetic information in the blood, where tumor DNA circulates in far smaller quantities. Other companies have been chasing similar tests. For instance, pharma giant Roche (rhhby) had its own liquid biopsy approved by the FDA just this past week.
But Guardant's technology can examine cancer-related mutations in a far greater number of genes. And the new study results were striking: Common disease-driving mutated genes detected by Guardant360 in breast, lung, colorectal, and other cancers were also present in 94-100% of the solid tissues extracted from trial participants. That's also significant because cancers shape shift over time, and being able to do blood draws to continually monitor disease progression could prove far more convenient than repeated surgical procedures which might make patients balk.
For Guardant, the next step is to branch beyond sequencing meant to match patients to targeted oncology drugs, and into early detection of cancer itself. The firm launched an initiative called Project Lunar last week that it hopes will get the technology to that stage.
"Project Lunar will launch in five cancer types: breast cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, and ovarian cancer," said Eltoukhy. "Ovarian, lung, and pancreatic cancer are the deadliest cancers, so early detection would be a game changer for those."
"That's the vision of Guardant," he added. "An annual blood test at an annual physical that protects against cancer."
Initial data from the project is expected to be released later this year.
You can follow all of Fortune's ASCO coverage here.