SoftBank's newest, $165M biotech investment looks for infectious traces in the blood
SoftBank has found its newest biotech investment.
The Japanese bank has invested $165 million into Karius, a company that uses blood tests to diagnose infectious diseases, as part of its new Vision Fund 2. The full scope of the new fund has yet to be announced, but the first and newly-beleaguered Vision Fund poured $100 billion into technology companies, including the biotechs Vir Biotechnology and Roivant and the sequencing company 10x Genomics.
Based in San Francisco, Karius develops tests that can be used to rapidly diagnose patients with any one of over 1,000 infectious diseases. The idea is to bypass the relatively slow guess-and-check system whereby doctors hypothesize if a patient’s symptoms match a disease and then test for it, and instead directly test the blood for markers that will indicate if a certain disease is present.
It launched out of stealth mode in 2017 with $50 million in funding and some media-friendly anecdotes. That included a 3-year-old boy whose rash stumped doctors as test after test came back negative until samples were shipped to Karius’ labs. Overnight, they showed he had rat-bite fever, and had likely been scratched by his pet rat.
Karius uses a technology called cell-free DNA tests. They analyze the strands of DNA that float freely in your blood, given off by dying cells. If you have an infection, that stream of free-floating DNA may contain fragments of DNA from the bacteria or viruses that caused the infection. Identify the source of the DNA — as recent advances in reduction technology and artificial intelligence have allowed researchers to do — identify the infection.
Physicians have called cell-free DNA tests a “molecular stethoscope,” comparing the changes it might bring to diagnosis to the changes heralded by the acoustic stethoscope in the 1800s. The first uses of such analyses came in 2011, when it was first used to test the blood of pregnant women for fetal DNA that indicated a fetus with Down syndrome. Mickey Kertesz, now CEO of Karius, and a Stanford team noticed DNA from infectious diseases in the bloodstream and started plotting ways to test it systematically.
A big validation for Karius’s technology came in a small JAMA study published in December. Researchers took 47 patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and tested them for bloodstream infection, a potentially life-threatening complication of certain cancer treatment. Of the 16 patients who eventually showed signs of infection, Karius diagnoses them at least 3 days before symptoms appeared.
A Nature Microbiology study published last year also showed that the Karius test reached the same conclusion as a blood culture analysis in 93.7% of sepsis cases across 350 students. Additionally, there is evidence that it can be used as a less invasive way to screen for organ transplant matches.
Karius said that its test is now used in over 100 hospitals and health systems nationwide, but it doesn’t come cheap: $2,000 per test.