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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Office Hours: Virta Health’s Sami Inkinen on Changing How Type 2 Diabetes Is Perceived and Treated

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Virta Health’s Sami Inkinen
Image courtesy Virta Health

Sami Inkinen’s first taste of entrepreneurship was running an online bulletin board system from a farm in Finland.

On this episode of Office Hours, the Virta Health founder and CEO joins host Spencer Rascoff to discuss how to find a compatible co-founder and how his own health scare inspired his latest company.


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Prediction: Cities Have Learned a Lot From COVID. In 2023, More Will Tailor Their Infrastructure Toward Micromobility

Horace Dediu
Horace Dediu is the co-founder of the media platform Micromobility Industries and the coiner of the term "micromobility."
micromobility graphic ​
Evan Xie

Over the last two years, the COVID crisis had an unexpected effect in urban centers all over the world: drivers lost space, in the form of car parking and lanes, while riders of bikes, scooters and other forms of micromobility vehicles gained space in the form of bike lanes. At the same time, cities began to realize electric cars are not the solution.

In 2023, policymakers will double down on what they’ve seen work: infrastructure that makes travel cheaper, safer and easier — and micromobility options that make better use of cities’ limited space.

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Prediction: Here’s How Brands Will Find Their Way Around the Social Media ‘Platform Tax’ in 2023
Image by Evan Xie

I spoke with a guy the other day who runs a $60-million-per-year ecommerce business. I asked what his number one problem is today.

His answer: “I’m paying Google and Meta 30% of every dollar in revenue. I know customers love my product, and I’d love to have a more direct connection with them.”

Truth is, I hear this all the time from marketers at business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) brands . And it’s not just those two players. TikTok, Snapchat, LinkedIn and others have built powerful platforms that keep users locked in, turning these sites into de facto gatekeepers for brands.

We call it the “platform tax.” You want to sell something digitally? You need to pay a platform for access first.

With the shaky economic outlook for 2023, many brands are cutting back their media dollars and seeking new avenues to reach potential customers.

We spent the first five years at Influicity helping brands work with influencers, including movie studios, consumer goods, automotive brands and so on. At its essence, these brands were tapping into communities that influencers had built using platforms that could provide massive scale.

Social marketing’s next evolution will see brands building their own communities. And these communities are directly tied to revenue. Here’s how they’ll do it:

Working Directly with Influencers

Content creators are a phenomenal community builder because they drive consumer attention while lending a halo to the brand. Influencers come in all shapes and sizes — from the micro, such as the neighborhood soccer mom to the mega, such as the reality show star.

We see more brands leaning towards long-term relationships with influencers to generate authentic and continuous demand. They’ll do this by partnering with individual influencers on longer term commitments (i.e. 6-12 months) with exclusive requirements (i.e. you can’t work with my competitors during this period).

A good example of this is apparel brand Hollister Co, who works with a group of about 30 influencers on live streams and custom collections.

We see brands doing this on the social platforms as well as other channels, like podcasts and email.

Turning to Podcasts

Massive communities have been built through podcasts: Joe Rogan, Lex Fridman and Alexandra Cooper, to name a few.

A brand example of this is RestoTalk, a podcast from restaurant-tech company TouchBistro. This podcast is hosted by Food Network star Justin Warner and has a loyal following of restaurant industry pros. (Disclosure: TouchBistro is a client of Influicity)

Another example is HubSpot, which acquired the podcast My First Million to reach the entrepreneurship community.

Podcasts avoid the platform tax because users can download or stream them directly from their favorite podcast app, like Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Brands only need to cover server fees.

Some marketers get tripped up because they think their podcast should be about their brand. It shouldn't. Your podcast should be about what your ideal customer cares about. Running a food brand? Talk about recipes and meal prep. Have a construction company? Talk about architecture and building innovations.

There are lots of opportunities for brands that put in the time.

Building a Rapport By Email

It was old, then it was new, then it was old —now it’s new again. When done right, regular emailing can actually be a great community builder. They can become a part of the user’s daily ritual. And they can work with many different formats including text, photo and video.

Email can easily be the largest single revenue driver for consumer brands. It can also help B2B brands build a sales pipeline.

Consumer apparel brands like Tilley.com and Indochino.com (full disclosure: both are clients of mine) have daily emails that drive hefty ecommerce sales. On the B2B side, analytics company Ahrefs offers a weekly newsletter that is very popular with search marketing professionals.

Email is also one of the few non-interceptable communication vehicles. No news feed algorithm is going to filter out your message. You can’t be de-platformed, and you don’t need to pay for access to an inbox.

Organic Reach on Platforms

The same platforms that charge for access are also your best allies in creating communities: TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest.

I know brand leaders will complain that their content is getting filtered out and only seen by 2% of their followers.

So here’s a secret from first-hand experience: I get 500K to 1 million impressions per month (free) on LinkedIn. And it’s not luck.

It's a deliberate exercise in figuring out what the platform wants to surface and playing into that theme. And you need to do this while staying true to your own brand.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, one or more of these channels could be a vital part of your brand’s communication strategy. As 2023 rolls around, take the time to experiment with the right mix. It’s not an easy balance, but it’s critical to building a community of your customers.

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