As Big Cancer Trials Ramp Up, Grail Goes Global, Merges With Cirina

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Grail, the Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) spinout aiming to develop a blood test that can detect cancer at its earliest stages, has gone global. The Menlo Park, CA, startup, is merging with China’s Cirina, a privately held company co-founded by a pioneer in the field of blood-based diagnostics, Dennis Lo.

Grail, which recently raised a record $900 million round from a group of drugmakers and others, didn’t disclose the financial terms of the merger. But the deal will see Lo become a scientific co-founder of the combined company and join Grail’s scientific advisory board. Cirina CEO Maneesh Jain will join Grail as well, though the company didn’t say in what capacity.

Lo was the first to discover that bits of fetal DNA circulate in a pregnant mother’s blood. That discovery led to a diagnostic blood test for Down syndrome and other diseases now performed worldwide. He has since been working on blood tests for cancer and has published a number of papers on the topic, earning him China’s version of the Nobel Prize, the Future Science Prize, last year.

Lo’s work has also taken root in Hong Kong-based Cirina, which he co-founded in 2014 with the help of VC firm Decheng Capital. Cirina raised a $12 million Series A round led by Decheng founding partner Min Cui. It hasn’t divulged much about its goals publicly, just that it plans to develop tests to help physicians diagnose cancer “and other deadly diseases at their earliest stages.” The company has offices in Hong Kong and San Francisco.

In addition to bringing Lo aboard, meanwhile, Grail says the deal will expand its reach so it can sell its tests—should they ever make it to market—in both Asian and western markets. Grail has said that its first product could reach the market in 2019, but that depends on the outcome of some huge, long clinical trials. The company is trying to prove the worth of a blood test meant to catch cancer when it’s most treatable—long before patients show any symptoms—by detecting fragments of cancer DNA shed by tumors.

If Grail were to successfully screen seemingly healthy people for signs of cancer, it could be a major breakthrough. But that practice is controversial; unnecessary biopsies and other medical procedures for people who are wrongly diagnosed or whose cancer might never have spread can also hasten health problems. There are also significant questions regarding so-called liquid biopsies, like Grail’s test, which are slowly gaining traction as a way to help doctors treat patients already diagnosed with cancer. (Here’s more on that, and the obstacles facing Grail going forward.)

Grail has already begun its first multi-center clinical trial, dubbed the Circulating Cell-free Genome Atlas (CCGA) study, in which it plans to eventually analyze blood samples from 10,000 participants. A second trial began in April, a longitudinal, observational study called STRIVE. That trial will enroll up to 120,000 women who will get a blood test when they undergo a mammogram. The goal is to prove the worth of a blood-based diagnostic for breast cancer, and also, Grail has said, help develop a “pan-cancer test to detect multiple cancers at early stages.” Grail plans to enroll hundreds of thousands of patients in additional studies as well, which is why the company has amassed such a huge war chest.

Photo of Hong Kong Island skyline courtesy of flickr user Phil Wiffen via a Creative Commons 2.0 license.