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The JP Morgan Healthcare Conference from Afar

This being an invitation-only conference, I had to follow the JP Morgan Healthcare conference from a distance. As we have witnessed in the past, exciting announcements happen here in San Francisco some of the news spark what eventually will become the big trends throughout the year. One could say it is a window to what is just around the corner in 2016.


Obviously, Illumina made quite the splash with two separate announcements: (1) launch of the new company Grail – major co-investors include Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and others – focusing on pre-symptomatic cancer testing based on the hot liquid biopsy-based methodology, and (2) the release of a new sequencer that should allow access to sequencing even for smaller labs.

  • Grail’s goal is to provide a blood test by 2019 that costs $1,000 or less for early cancer detection. In order to prove that early detection is possible Grail plans to spend millions on organizing clinical trials involving as many as 30,000 patients. It is estimated that the amount of DNA sequencing required for this study alone represents the equivalent of decoding the genomes of about 400,000 people at high quality which makes this endeavor about three times as large as the Genomics England project. Illumina is clearly in an excellent position to achieve this lofty goal, as they will be able to utilize their sequencing technology at a cost that is low enough to carry out massive studies.
  • The sequencing system launched is the MiniSeq sequencing system – ships early in Q1 of 2016 -, a flexible benchtop sequencer for a broad range of DNA and RNA sequencing applications. Priced at half the price of a MiSeq ($49,500), this system is now the most affordable Illumina sequencer and expected to find widespread use by a range of laboratories wanting to perform sequencing in-house.

Interestingly, “liquid biopsy” was just in the news in the week preceding the JP Morgan

conference with Guardant Health announcing that they received new funding – nearly $100 million in series D –  to build out their liquid biopsy-based blood test Guardant360  for cancer patients. This test however differs from the Grail’s test in that it is not a pre-symptomatic cancer test, but rather aims at replacing tissue biopsies that monitor tumor response to drug treatment.

Illumina also announced their first sequencer (tentatively named Firefly) that does not rely on optical readouts. This new system instead is based on sequencing that will be done on complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chips. However, not just the name is for now tentative, also the release day is somewhat open, being currently scheduled sometime in 2017.

Several commercial tool providers and diagnostic companies also used this venue to announce their strategies and visions or to provide a status update:

  • Thermo Fisher Scientific discussed details behind its decision to acquire Affymetrix for $1.3 billion and its proposed fit within the company which includes growing its revenues outside of the US by greatly benefitting from Thermo Fisher’s global reach.
  • Human Longevity said that so far they have sequenced more than 20,000 human genomes and that they launched a cancer sequencing service which will allow them to reach their goal of sequencing 100,00 genomes by end of 2016.

And last but not least, billionaire pharmaceutical entrepreneur Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is driving a new National Immunotherapy Coalition with leading pharmaceutical companies (including Amgen, Celgene, and some smaller companies), which has the goal to speed the testing of new types of combination cancer drugs.

Exciting news indeed and this just at the beginning of 2016.

Brigitte Ganter

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