Breakthroughs with the other C-word

While COVID-19 has justifiably been at the top of healthcare news, a major medical breakthrough has been quietly happening in the San Francisco Bay area—one that could detect another potentially fatal disease before it’s too late: Cancer. And the company responsible for this breakthrough? GRAIL.

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than one out of three Americans will be diagnosed with cancer sometime during their lives. The cancer death rate has dropped significantly over the past 25 years, due largely in part to the increase in screening tests such as mammograms, colonoscopies, and prostate exams, which many patients find invasive and painful. But GRAIL is developing a blood test designed to detect multiple types of cancer in early stages, while they can be cured.

It all started with a prenatal DNA test developed by Illumina (GRAIL’s parent company) to detect fetal chromosomal abnormalities. When 10 of the first 100,000 women tested presented with “unusual chromosome patterns,” it turned out that the fetuses didn’t have any abnormalities, but all 10 women did have cancer.

Most DNA tests for cancer risk only screen for one gene, such as BRCA-1, which causes some forms of breast cancer. However, according to peer-reviewed data published in Annals of Oncology, the GRAIL test can find 50 different types—more than half of all known cancers—in Stage I or earlier: before symptoms appear, when treatment results in a 90% five-year survival rate, compared to Stage IV, which has only a 20% survival rate.

The GRAIL test has been shown to have a false positive rate of less than 1%, while mammograms have a false-positive rate of 11% among patients aged 55 to 79 and PSA prostate cancer tests have a false positive rate of up to 75%.

“Tumor DNA has a unique, identifiable genomic signature that can be detected through sequencing and attributed to a specific organ in the body,” said GRAIL VP of Clinical Development Anne-Renee Hartman, MD.

GRAIL Chief Medical Officer Josh Ofman says that “80 percent of cancer deaths are from cancers that we don’t currently screen for.” With that in mind, the life-saving potential of the GRAIL multi-cancer early detection test, which has an accuracy rate of more than 93% in identifying the tissue of origin of a cancer and an extremely low false-positive rate can only benefit patients, providers, and payers.

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