Guardant Health raises $360m to sequence tumour DNA from cancer patients

The biotechnology startup said sequencing tumour DNA from 1 million cancer patients will help provide much-needed data into the field of cancer research.

Guardant Health has announced raising $360 million to fund a new goal to sequence the tumour DNA of more than 1 million cancer patients within five years.

The latest funding round was led by a subsidiary of Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Group, with participation from existing investors including Khosla Ventures and Sequoia Capital.

It brings the total amount raised by the the Redwood City, California-based biotechnology startup to approximately $550 million.

According to Guardant co-founder and CEO Helmy Eltoukhy, curing cancer is a big data problem, and researchers have been "data starved".

As such, the "Guardant 1 Million" initiative will seek to provide an infusion of data into the cancer research field with the goal of accelerating the development of blood-based tests for early cancer detection.

"We believe our rapid, iterative approach will generate the data necessary to develop non-invasive tests that are both sensitive enough to detect cancer early in high-risk populations, and specific enough to avoid inflicting unnecessary anxiety and harm through overdiagnosis," said Amir Ali Talasaz, Guardant Health co-founder and president.

Founded in 2013, Guardant has been developing a non-invasive screening tool that relies on just two vials of blood rather than tissue samples to detect cancer. The "Guardant360" genomic test is designed to connect patients who have advanced-stage cancer with targeted therapies, as well as with emerging drugs being clinically trialled.

"For some advanced cancer patients, targeted drugs can be more effective and less toxic than standard chemotherapy. But these targeted drugs only work when the patient's tumour DNA contains specific genomic alterations. In the past, the only way to learn if a tumour harboured such a mutation was to sequence tissue that was removed through a biopsy," Guardant explained during its announcement on Thursday.

"A comprehensive liquid biopsy examines the tiny fragments of DNA, known as circulating tumour DNA or ctDNA, that are released into the bloodstream by dying tumour cells, and provides a genomic profile without requiring patients to undergo an invasive tissue biopsy."

Since being introduced in 2014, Guardant360 has been ordered by more than 3,000 oncologists for 35,000-plus patient samples.

In addition to financing the Guardant 1 Million initiative, the new funding will support the expansion of Project Lunar, an initiative announced by Guardant last year that seeks to use the technology behind Guardant360 to detect early signs of cancer in high-risk patients, as well as residual disease in cancer survivors.

Guardant and SoftBank have also formed a new joint venture to expand commercialisation of Guardant360 in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Nearly 8 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed in these regions annually, according to Guardant.

Guardant is not the only company looking into early cancer detection; Freenome, a liquid biopsy diagnosis platform that uses a combination of machine learning and biology to detect the cell-free DNA sequencing of cancer before it becomes deadly, has raised $71.2 million to date, $65 million of which was raised in March this year. One of Freenome's investors, Google Ventures, has also backed Freenome competitor Grail.

In January, Grail, a spin-off of the NASDAQ-listed DNA-sequencing giant Illumina, also raised $900 million in a Series B round led by Arch Venture Partners, with contribution from other strategic investors such as Johnson and Johnson's innovation arm.

Google's AI research unit DeepMind also announced back in August that it was partnering with the UK's National Health Service to explore how machine learning could help doctors treat head and neck cancers -- particularly whether it can help reduce planning times from four hours to one before radiotherapy treatment is started.

Microsoft then announced a number of key cancer-fighting projects it has under way, such as Project Hanover, which seeks make personalised, precision cancer therapy available to all cancer patients by helping oncologists sift through reams of biomedical research papers faster.

Microsoft is targeting the so-called "molecular tumor board", the group that convenes to devise personal therapy to suit a patient's specific cancer.

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