Freenome, a startup that wants to build out a blood test that screens for the earliest signs of cancer, just raised $65 million.
The round is led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by others including GV, Polaris Partners, and Asset Management Ventures. Founders Fund and Data Collective Venture Capital, each of which invested in Freenome’s $5.5 million seed round in June 2016, are also part of the latest round.
Freenome wants to use machine learning to crunch the human genome (the entire genetic material that gives our body instructions on how to live and grow) to look for any signs of cancer in the body. The new funding will go toward developing the software and validating the test through clinical trials, which are already underway.
“What we’re aiming to do is develop a test that healthy patients would take as part of their annual physical that tells you whether or not somebody’s going to have cancer,” Freenome CEO Gabe Otte told Business Insider in June.
Here’s how it would work: Your doctor would order the test, and you’d get your blood drawn the way you would for any other test for cholesterol or blood-sugar levels. But instead of screening for the amount of cholesterol in your blood, the test is looking for biomarkers that could predispose you to cancer. Freenome is developing tests to screen for prostate, breast, lung, and colorectal cancers, among the most common types of cancer.
The tests are often referred to as “liquid biopsies” because unlike solid-tumor biopsies, these “liquid” versions just pick up clues from the blood. They rely on something called “circulating tumor DNA,” or the bits of DNA that are released into the bloodstream from dying tumor cells.
Cancer blood tests have been gaining momentum in the past few years. The Illumina spin-off Grail said Wednesday that it had raised $900 million to fund huge clinical trials to test out its cancer diagnostic test, and companies such as Guardant Health and Foundation Medicine that use liquid biopsies to monitor tumor activity in people with cancer.
For now, Freenome is running the clinical trials to make sure the test can provide accurate diagnoses, with the goal of approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Otte said showing whether the test could improve the overall survival of patients with cancer was something the team was “actively exploring.”
Otte, now 28 years old, did an Apple internship before going to college. His computer-science professors told him to diversify and pick out another area to focus on so he wasn’t bored in class, so he chose biology.