Santa Monica's Quantgene Uses Big Data to Solve the Cancer Riddle

Rachel Uranga

Rachel Uranga is dot.LA's Managing Editor, News. She is a former Mexico-based market correspondent at Reuters and has worked for several Southern California news outlets, including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News. She has covered everything from IPOs to immigration. Uranga is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and California State University Northridge. A Los Angeles native, she lives with her husband, son and their felines.

quantgene

Jo Bhakdi thinks he can extend life with data.

Over the past years, the trained economist and co-founder of Quantgene has helped create a blood test that screens for early signs of some of the deadliest cancers, using millions of culled data points.

"We have a bigger vision behind this," Bhakdi said. "It's what I call decades in a decade — to extend the average human lifespan by ten years in the next ten years."


Quantgene has been developing so-called "liquid test" that can pinpoint the origin of multiple types of cancer by identifying their cellular mutations using artificial intelligence analytics and big data.

The project began five years ago at a U.C. Berkeley lab. Bhakdi partnered with co-founder Monika Hagen to create a system that would screen cancer using algorithms.

Late this year, Bhakdi and Hagen expect to roll out an early cancer screening subscription plan to consumers for an annual cost of around $2,200, pending regulatory approval. And they specifically came to Los Angeles, an image-conscious city that's embraced the idea of wellness, to launch it.

Blood tests are not a new technology for cancer screening, but Quantgene and others are trying to create a more precise tool to identify cancer in its earliest stages by finding mutation patterns that point to the disease. And in the process lower cancer death rates in the U.S.. This year, an estimated 600,000 people will die of the disease. Another 1.6 million will get the grim diagnosis. It's the second biggest killer of Americans year in and year out.

Most blood tests are currently used when doctors already know where the cancer exists, mostly in order to track its progression.

Quantgene founders Jo Bhakdi and Monika Hagen

The new tests examine fragments of DNA that break loose in the bloodstream. Quantgene looks at the different mutations of these cells to identify patterns that signal early forms of cancer or other diseases. The company plans to sell the system as part of a line of tiered-price testing called "Serenity" that includes genetic counseling and profiles.

Quantgene is branding the complex sequencing and AI process that analyzes these mutations the "Griffin Deep Genomics Platform." The company has raised more than $13 million, and expects to raise a Series B round this fall. Bhakdi believes it could upend how people test for cancer. But it has competition.

Amazon-backed, Menlo Park-based Grail Inc. has raised nearly $2 billion. In March, the Silicon Valley company released a report that said it could detect 50 types of cancer across all stages, with a false-positive rate below 1%. The company said it can find its location with 93% accuracy. But finding early-stage cancer — the type that actually save lives — has proven elusive.

Of the 12 deadly cancer types that make up 63% of deaths in the U.S., Grail reported a detection rate of 67% for stages one to three. The company's test is expected to be available within 12 months. A spokeswoman said in an email, it's "too early to comment on cost, however, our principal goal is to ensure broad access to our test, and we hope to make this ground breaking technology available to as many people as possible." Investors include Bill Gates, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck.

"The problem with a lot of these liquid biopsy technologies right now — Grail and others — is that they are not really good at detecting cancers at the earliest stages. Because there just isn't that much tumor material in the blood," said Timothy Rebbeck, director of the Zhu Family Center for Global Cancer Prevention at Harvard. "So, it's not to say that it couldn't be done. It's just the right now the technology is not refined enough to do it that really well."

Getting to Cancer Screening at Earlier Stages

For the last few decades, physicians have screened individual organs for signs of cancer, trying to suss out whether a patient has a cancerous growth on the pancreas or breast or lung. These early screenings, coupled with advances in cancer treatments, have been credited with a decline in U.S. deaths related to cancer.

"The median point of diagnosis in these 1.6 million is between stage three and stage four.

If you can shift that point of stage two and one, you would be saving 400,000 people a year," Bhakdi said. "That's crazy if you think about that."

Bhakdi, who comes from a family of scientists and doctors, began the search less than a month before his own mother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.

At the time, a family member asked his help in solving a genomic question about whether one could determine if a random, isolated cell was cancer. The answer is very difficult to get. It lays in sequencing the cell's DNA and then comparing it to thousands of others. That ability to compare cells with a massive data trove is now at the heart of their company.

A flow cell used for deep-sequencing produces 6 billion data points per patient sample.Courtesy Quantgene

Bhakdi believes it would have saved his mother.

"If you are diagnosed with colon cancer at stage one, you have a 94% survival rate," he said. "In stage four, you have an 11% survival rate."

Sidestepping Insurers in Santa Monica

One of the best ways to bring down deaths is to diagnose cancer early, said Rebbeck. But even when these technologies are developed for widespread use they could exacerbate disparities for the poor, underserved and uninsured. That's because there remains systemic hurdles of access and cost.

Bhakdi said he understands those concerns. He had hoped originally to work with insurers to get the product out, but they required long-term economic studies to prove they would lower costs. Unable to produce that quickly, Quantgene moved to Santa Monica last year.

"We asked the question, 'What region has the most innovation-driven and future-oriented consumers and physicians and health care experts that are most likely to adopt new technologies?'," he said. "And what we found was very clear, very clear: Los Angeles."

In short, people in Los Angeles pay well to be healthy and beautiful. He pointed to companies that thrive in the metropolis like Next Health, a self-described longevity center that offers cryotherapy, or Remedy Place, a social wellness club.

"There's a big population here, a lot of whom are focused on health and wellness and are willing to spend the money," said David Whelan, chief executive of BioScienceLA, "The Goop effect sort of worked here. This is the place to be able to get a lot of customers very quickly when you're charging a high price point for customized service."

Beyond that, Bhakdi said there's also an extreme level of excellence in clinical infrastructure from medical institutions at UCLA, USC, City of Hope and Cedars-Sinai.

The move, he said, will hopefully allow Quantgene to demonstrate the product's value and convince insurers to offer it, eventually getting it into more people's hands. At the same time, the cost should draw down.

By 2024, the marketplace for personalized medicine and testing is expected to hit $85 billion, according to Pitchbook.

How does it work?

The company uses what's called cell-free DNA in the bloodstream to look for somatic mutations, those that are unrelated to hereditary factors and indicate a cancer growth.

"It's not a black and white thing," Bhakdi said.

It's more like matching different cancer profiles via machine learning. Using algorithms, the company traces the mutation patterns and compares those patterns to others who have the disease. By comparing the patient's mutation pattern along with their profile, Quantgene determines whether a specific cancer is maturing and tries to spot it.

"What the report does is not tell you whether you have cancer or not. That would be irresponsible," Bhakdi said. "It looks into the mutation pattern of the DNA that is in your gut — which means all the DNA that comes from, say, the diet in your body — and it takes these patterns and gives you a very high-resolution insight into how this compares with people with... all other kinds of medical conditions, including the ten leading cancers."

In 2016, Quantgene launched a clinical trial that will help them determine the sensitivity and specificity of the tests. Their goal is to have 10,000 patient blood samples. So far the company has about 5,000.

quantgeneQuantgene has developed a custom assay for DNA extractionCourtesy of Quantgene

But those working with the company think once it comes to market, it could be a game changer, helping physicians figure out how to deal with early signs of cancer.

"A lot of the companies working in molecular diagnostics don't have a good approach to telling physicians what to do and helping out with decision making. Quantgene has come to understand that that aspect of integrating clinical information and then providing guidance on what to do based on probabilities is helpful and necessary," said Jorge Nieva, an advisor to the company and an oncologist and associate professor at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. "It has the real potential to revolutionize the field of cancer screening because our approach to cancer screening up to this point has really been organ-based."

What distinguishes the company, he said, is they are largely driven by math instead of biology.

"With the large database that Quantgene has built of some 40,000 tumors across 15 different cancers types, you can begin to build those patterns so that you can map those genetic abnormalities back to the anatomy," Nieva said.

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Cadence

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

Read moreShow less

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.

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