Third Rock un­veils liq­uid biop­sy biotech, lead­ing $110M bet it can Thrive in ear­ly can­cer de­tec­tion

Can­cer is the sec­ond lead­ing cause of death glob­al­ly — the ear­li­er it is de­tect­ed, the bet­ter shot pa­tients have of bounc­ing back. Re­searchers have long pur­sued a min­i­mal­ly-in­va­sive, ef­fec­tive test to ex­pose ear­ly mark­ers of the of­ten dead­ly dis­ease, and weeks ago Grail blue­print­ed its strat­e­gy for its blood test for ear­ly can­cer de­tec­tion. On Thurs­day, Third Rock Ven­tures un­veiled its shot at that lofty goal, with the launch of a liq­uid biop­sy com­pa­ny that has raised a meaty $110 mil­lion in its first round.

The com­pa­ny, apt­ly named Thrive Ear­li­er De­tec­tion, is bet­ting on Can­cerSEEK — its blood test-in-de­vel­op­ment de­signed to sniff out eight com­mon can­cer types by in­ter­ro­gat­ing ge­nom­ic mu­ta­tions in cir­cu­lat­ing tu­mor DNA (ctD­NA) as well as pro­tein mark­ers in plas­ma that have been im­pli­cat­ed in can­cer.

“It’s great to be part of an area, where (…) we could do for can­cer what 50 years ago we did for heart dis­ease, when we start­ed screen­ing for high blood pres­sure for ex­am­ple,” said Steven Kaf­ka, Thrive CEO and part­ner at Third Rock Ven­tures, in an in­ter­view with End­points News ahead of the an­nounce­ment.

Can­cerSEEK is en­gi­neered to not on­ly be pow­ered to iden­ti­fy the pres­ence of rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly can­cer, but us­es ma­chine learn­ing to lo­cal­ize the or­gan of ori­gin of the can­cer — even­tu­al­ly, the hope is the test will be used as part of the ar­se­nal of rou­tine med­ical screen­ing tools, to com­ple­ment ex­ist­ing dis­ease-spe­cif­ic screen­ing meth­ods such as mam­mog­ra­phy and colonoscopy.

In a ret­ro­spec­tive study, en­com­pass­ing 1,005 pa­tients with non-metasta­t­ic, clin­i­cal­ly de­tect­ed can­cers of the ovary, liv­er, stom­ach, pan­creas, esoph­a­gus, col­orec­tum, lung, or breast pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence last year, Can­cerSEEK tests were pos­i­tive in a me­di­an of 70% of the eight can­cer types.

Da­ta showed the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the test ranged from 69% to 98% for the de­tec­tion of five can­cer types — ovary, liv­er, stom­ach, pan­creas, and esoph­a­gus — for which there are no screen­ing tests avail­able for av­er­age-risk in­di­vid­u­als. Mean­while, the abil­i­ty of the test to hone in on the or­gan of can­cer ori­gin was > 99% — al­though 7 out of 812 healthy con­trols scored pos­i­tive. In ad­di­tion, Can­cerSEEK lo­cal­ized the can­cer to a small num­ber of anatom­ic sites in a me­di­an of 83% of the pa­tients.

Af­ter da­ta from the Can­cerSEEK study was pub­lished, Sci­ence writer Derek Lowe sug­gest­ed there was room for im­prove­ment, but it con­sti­tut­ed a good start. “The big­ger prob­lem is if you’re go­ing to use this test for ear­ly de­tec­tion: when the team looked at the de­tec­tion rates ad­just­ed for the stage of the di­ag­nosed tu­mors, Can­cerSEEK turned out to on­ly catch 43% of the Stage I cas­es over­all,” he wrote in a post.


Im­age: Bert Vo­gel­stein THRIVE

Can­cerSEEK has been grant­ed the FDA’s break­through de­vice sta­tus, as has Grail’s mul­ti-can­cer de­tec­tion blood test, which re­lies on DNA se­quenc­ing to as­sess methy­la­tion, an epi­ge­net­ic change across the genome to ex­pose can­cer sig­nals.

Ken­neth Kin­zler Johns Hop­kins

Grail, which was spun out of DNA se­quenc­ing com­pa­ny Il­lu­mi­na $ILMN in 2016, has raised $1.6 bil­lion in fund­ing to fu­el the de­vel­op­ment of its test, which is now be­ing eval­u­at­ed in three large-scale stud­ies that will al­to­geth­er en­roll 165,000 in­di­vid­u­als.

Nick­o­las Pa­padopou­los Johns Hop­kins

Thrive — which was found­ed by three can­cer re­searchers Bert Vo­gel­stein, Ken­neth Kin­zler and Nick­o­las Pa­padopou­los at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty — is al­so eval­u­at­ing Can­cerSEEK in a large prospec­tive study. The tri­al, called DE­TECT, has en­rolled 10,000 healthy women aged be­tween 65 and 75 with­out pri­or can­cer his­to­ry.

Da­ta from DE­TECT should be avail­able some­time next year, Kaf­ka said.

“We have a goal of it (Can­cerSEEK) be­ing in the hun­dreds of dol­lars, com­mer­cial­ly, not thou­sands of dol­lars… sin­gle dis­ease tests like (Ex­act Sci­ence’s) Co­lo­guard are list priced at $600 or $700, a mam­mog­ra­phy costs $100 to $200 and if you think of those as the guard rail — we have a mul­ti can­cer test that al­ready we be­lieve is per­form­ing with­in that lev­el of cost.” he added.

Third Rock Ven­tures led the $110 mil­lion Se­ries A fi­nanc­ing, with par­tic­i­pa­tion from Sec­tion32, Cas­din Cap­i­tal, Bio­mat­ics Cap­i­tal, Blue­Cross BlueShield Ven­ture Part­ners, The In­vus Group, Ex­act Sci­ences $EXAS, Cowin Ven­ture, Cam­den Part­ners, Gam­ma 3 LLC and oth­ers.

Oth­er com­pa­nies such as Guardant Health and Bio­cept are al­so work­ing on their own liq­uid biop­sy tests. Each com­pa­ny is look­ing to cham­pi­on con­sis­ten­cy and ac­cu­ra­cy — false pos­i­tives in­duce un­nec­es­sary anx­i­ety, and are cost­ly. An­oth­er con­cern is of course, pri­va­cy.


Im­age: Steven Kaf­ka THRIVE

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP Images)

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Bob Bradway, Amgen CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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