We got a sneak peek at how the cancer test that Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates just invested in works



Sam Hodgson/Reuters

Illumina, the maker of DNA-sequencing technology, grabbed headlines Sunday when it said it was teaming up with a group of Silicon Valley investors to develop a blood test for any kind of cancer at an earlier stage than previously possible.

Using Illumina's technology, a new company called Grail will look for a way to measure circulating nucleic acids (CNAs) - bits of DNA that circulate in the blood outside of the blood cells. While most of our DNA is inside our cells, scientists use CNAs as a non-invasive way to test for cancer and other signs of disease.


Illumina is the majority owner of Grail, which raised over $100 million from investors including ARCH Venture Partners, Bezos Expeditions, Bill Gates, and Sutter Hill Ventures.

At a breakout at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference on Monday, Illumina's chief executive Jay Flatley explained just how difficult a task the new company faces.

Complimentary Tech Event
Transform talent with learning that works
Capability development is critical for businesses who want to push the envelope of innovation.Discover how business leaders are strategizing around building talent capabilities and empowering employee transformation.Know More

To detect the cancer, Grail will be looking into just 0.01% of DNA in the human body.

"It's an extraordinarily low amount of DNA in the blood that we're going after," Illumina CEO Jay Flately said in a meeting Monday.


But its easy to see why investors are willing to back Flatley's efforts. Illumina's success in developing DNA sequencing technology has turned it into a $25 billion market cap company with over 4,000 employees and nearly $2 billion in annual revenue. Its machines are used by researchers, doctors, and consumer companies to do everything from understanding different types of cancer to decoding someone's ancestry.

Less than a decade ago, the process of sequencing an individual genome, or looking at someone's full set of DNA, cost anyone attempting it upwards of $1 million. Today, that cost is closer to $1,000 and falling. That means DNA sequencing could move from being an expensive luxury to becoming as standard in health care as the flu shot, helping create a world where medical treatment is truly personal.

MIT Tech Review reports the cost of each Grail test will be less than $1,000.

NOW WATCH: These are the foods that you should - and should not - refrigerate