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Ambitious Startup's New Plan: Gene-Sequence Every Tumor. Yes, Every Single One

Foundation Medicine personalizes cancerA new biotech start-up called Foundation Medicine is aiming to create a single test that every person diagnosed with cancer could take to guide treatment decisions based on personalized medicine.

If they can pull it off, this could totally change not only the way cancer is treated, but the way cancer drugs are developed and approved.

Scientists and doctors already know that the way we've historically classified and treated cancer -- according to the place where it first pops up, like the breast, lung, colon or skin -- is misleading. Cancer is a disease of genetic mutations. Some mutations are more common in certain types of tumors (like EGFR mutations in lung cancer), but everyone's mutations are different. That's why a targeted lung cancer drug that costs tens of thousands of dollars per year might only work in 20 percent of the patients who take it -- it only works against certain mutations.

There are already a few cancer drugs specifically designed for patients with a particular genetic mutation, like Genentech/Roche's Herceptin (trastuzumab) for HER2+ breast cancer and Novartis' Gleevec (imatinib) for Ph+ leukemia. But humans have some 20,000 genes; testing them individually for mutations isn't realistic. What's needed is a single test that can compare a person's normal genome to their cancer genome and see all the mutations.

That's what Foundation Medicine wants to create.

The technology already exists. Some academic research centers can do cancer genome sequencing, and a company called CollabRx does it for a six-figure price that's not covered by insurance. But what Foundation wants to do is create a test that's fast and cheap enough to be covered by insurance and used by every doctor for every cancer patient.

Before you dismiss this as a pipe dream know that Foundation is the brainchild of scientist Eric Lander, a driving force behind the sequencing of the human genome, and a handful of other experts in cancer genomics. And venture capitalist Mark Levin, who ran cancer powerhouse Millennium Pharmaceuticals before it was taken over by Takeda for $8.8 billion, just put in $25 million.

So if anyone can do it, these guys can. And if they succeed, the impact would be far-reaching indeed.

Obviously, getting the right drugs to the right patients would extend and possibly even save lives. But there are business ramifications here, too. Testing the right drugs in the right patients means fewer failures, which means cheaper clinical programs, which means -- potentially -- cheaper drugs.

Cancer cell photo by Flickr user PauloRcCanuto, CC.