Guardant Health cofounder and WIRED Health speaker Helmy Eltoukhy talks about the blood test that can monitor a tumour’s DNA
Like ‘the size of a 747’ or ‘the length of a football pitch’, ‘curing cancer’ has become a part of our everyday lexicon. ‘A cure for cancer’ is a synonymous silver bullet – a metaphorical fix-all. But there’s a sting in the subtext: despite a global effort going back centuries, around eight million people are still killed by cancer every year. ‘Curing cancer’ is – literally or metaphorically – noble, aspirational and exhaustingly difficult.
Diagnosing cancer is not the problem, and hasn’t been for decades. We look, we cut, we biopsy, we test. The problem is that tumours not only grow, but mutate as they do so. Treating cancer isn’t like finding a needle in a haystack: it’s like reaching into a haystack and pulling the needle partway out, only to come back after lab tests to find the same needle has morphed into a scalpel. Matching a patient to the right course of treatment is difficult when the disease you’re trying to cure can transform itself in the time it takes to analyse a biopsied tissue sample.
At Guardant Health, Helmy Eltoukhy and his team are tackling this problem by cutting out the time-consuming, costly and invasive biopsy procedure altogether. All that their new method – a process of digital DNA sequencing the company calls Guardant360 – requires is two samples of a patient’s blood.
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