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There's an 'arms race' in early cancer detection start-ups, and SoftBank just plowed $360 million into one of them

  • Guardant Health secured another $360 million in financing in a round led by Softbank.
  • Guardant is engaged in an arms race to deliver on a promise for early-stage cancer detection via a blood test.
Female scientist about to view a human sample under a microscope
Andrew Brookes | Getty Images

With a blood test, doctors might someday detect cancer in the earliest stages.

That's the dream of a handful of start-ups in the so-called "liquid biopsy" space. The companies are sequencing DNA from circulating cancer cells in the blood and are raising massive amounts of cash to bring this technology from the lab to medical clinics in the next decade. This type of early-stage screening technology isn't currently available.

Silicon Valley's Guardant Health announced on Thursday that it raised $360 million in a round led by technology conglomerate SoftBank, bringing its total funding to $500 million.

As part of the investment, Guardant announced an ambitious goal to sequence 1 million cancer patients within 5 years.

Guardant has an edge on its competition as it already has a test on the market, targeting patients that have been diagnosed with cancer. Dubbed Guardant360, the test is used by doctors via blood draws to track and monitor how the patient is responding to treatment.

Guardant's funding round is dwarfed by the capital being raised by Grail, a startup that originally spun out of Illumina. Grail is led by former Google executive Jeff Huber, who joined the company after his wife died from cancer. Grail raised just shy of $1 billion, and is still looking for additional strategic investment.

Freenome, a Silicon Valley startup, raised a more modest $65 million from Silicon Valley investment firms, including Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures.

The technology is promising, but it's not yet been proven in the real world. These companies will need to collect a large volume of data and conduct extensive clinical trials before reaching patients. The tests will need to be cheap, accurate and sensitive enough to pass muster with doctors and regulators.

"It's now an arms race," said Sabah Oney, a geneticist and business development lead at Alector, a Silicon Valley-based therapeutics company. "It's rapidly becoming a big data problem, and everyone is looking for the silver bullet."