Just 18 months after its launch, cancer diagnostic startup Foundation Medicine has already developed a clinical diagnostic test, forged partnerships with several pharmaceutical companies, and discovered a number of novel mutations that may point toward new drug treatments for cancer.
The company is at the forefront of a growing trend in cancer: choosing drugs based on the genetic profile of a patient’s tumor cells. The plunging cost of gene sequencing means scientists can read the entire genome of an individual’s cancer, leading to the rapid discovery of more and more cancer-linked mutations. Foundation Medicine is putting those findings—and cheap sequencing technology—to work to detect these mutations in newly diagnosed cancers.
The startup was formed last year by a handful of cancer and genomics experts in Boston, including genomics pioneer Eric Lander, with funding from Boston-based venture capital group Third Rock Ventures. They have since raised $33.5 million from several investors, including Google Ventures.
While most cancer diagnostics focus on individual genes or specific mutations, Foundation Medicine developed a diagnostic test to read the entire sequence of hundreds of cancer-linked genes. The company has yet to finalize the price of the test, but says it will be similar to the cost of testing five or six individual molecular markers.
Foundation Medicine has so far processed several thousand tumor samples provided by academic medical centers, pharmaceutical companies, and clinical oncologists. The analysis detects whether the individual has mutations tied to existing drugs—both drugs that are approved for the patient’s specific cancer, and those that are approved for other conditions. The test, which takes about two weeks, will also highlight whether a patient has mutations that make him a candidate for experimental drugs in clinical trials. While the test is currently available to some oncologists, the company doesn’t plan an international launch until later next year.
The number of genes analyzed in the test will grow as the number of cancer-linked genes expands. The company will release an updated version of the test once or twice a year, says Michael Pellini, the company’s chief executive officer. “That’s why our work with pharma and academic medical centers is so important, because we get great insight into new therapeutics coming down the pike,” he says. “If a new therapy targeting a specific molecular profile is getting ready for human testing, we want to make sure we are adding that gene to our test.”