With $110M and Johns Hopkins tech, Thrive aims to make early cancer screening routine

Steven Kafka, the former Foundation Medicine chief operating officer who landed at Third Rock Ventures after a globetrotting “gap year,” has a new gig: CEO of Thrive Earlier Detection, a liquid biopsy company looking to catch cancer earlier through a routine blood test. 

Thrive CEO Steve Kafka (Thrive)

The company comes to life with $110 million in series A financing and CancerSEEK, a liquid biopsy test licensed from Johns Hopkins University that measures DNA and proteins in the blood to screen for multiple cancers. Third Rock led the financing, with Section32, Casdin Capital, Biomatics Capital, BlueCross BlueShield Venture Partners, Invus, Exact Sciences, Cowin Venture, Camden Partners, Gamma 3 and others pitching in.

“The context of launching Thrive is about being part of a shift in the oncology community toward earlier detection,” Kafka told FierceBiotech. “Most of the resources in our industry, on the drug discovery and development side or the diagnostics side, tend to focus on late-stage disease, where folks are already pretty sick, and their options are fairly limited.” 

There are some tests aimed at early detection and given as a routine screening, he said. But those tend to be disease-specific, testing for a single cancer type such as breast or colon cancer. With CancerSEEK, Thrive hopes to replicate the benefits of these routine tests while combining the detection of multiple cancers into one process. The goal is to get a simple blood test to primary care doctors that can catch cancers at earlier stages, when it hasn’t spread and is more likely to be beaten with surgery. 

RELATED: Third Rock names ex-Foundation executive Steven Kafka as venture partner

Rather than testing for cancer in a particular organ, CancerSEEK screens the blood for genetic mutations or protein markers that are linked to cancer, Kafka said. It then analyzes the data to determine whether cancer is present.  

The Johns Hopkins researchers authored a study last year that tested CancerSEEK in eight cancers, five of which have no screening tests. It enrolled more than 1,000 patients who had early-stage, nonmetastatic cancers of the breast, colorectum, esophagus, liver, lung, ovary, pancreas or stomach and aimed to gauge how well CancerSEEK performed. 

On average, it found 70% of the patients’ cancers. It worked best in ovarian cancers, catching 98% of those cases, while its worst performance was detecting 33% of breast cancer cases. For the five cancers that have no screening tests—ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreatic and esophageal—CancerSEEK picked up between 69% and 98% of all cases. 

Though the test’s sensitivity varied, it showed more than 99% specificity, meaning it had a very low rate of false-positive results. The team tested CancerSEEK on 812 healthy people and found seven false positives. Now, Thrive is working with Geisinger on a study testing CancerSEEK in 10,000 healthy people. 

“We’ve kind of stacked the deck against ourselves by enrolling individuals who are current on other screening tests, have no family history of cancer and are interested to enroll in a study like this one,” Kafka said. 

“What we are seeking to learn here is how the test performs, how we use that information to take confirmatory steps and move them into the cancer care continuum if they do turn out to have cancer. That will be an important part of what will ultimately become our commercial product, this idea of not stopping at the test result, but also helping to guide the next step, whether the test is negative or positive,” he said. 

RELATED: Celsius bags $65M to develop precision drugs for cancer, autoimmune disease

Thrive plans to offer a service that helps doctors interpret CancerSEEK results and confirm the type of cancer through other diagnostic tests. As more people use the test, Thrive will feed the data it collects—including demographic, imaging and clinical data—into its algorithms to improve the test and make it available to different types of patients. 

With its series A in the bag, Thrive is now focusing on driving clinical development: “The heart of that investment will be around working with FDA to design and execute a registration-enabling study,” Kafka said. And it doesn’t stop at the agency—building this body of evidence will help Thrive’s efforts to get payers on board. 

“We will continue to invest in product development, too … and we need to build the company,” he said. This includes building facilities such as a CLIA laboratory and growing the team. Kafka’s Third Rock colleagues Christoph Lengauer, Ph.D., and Samantha Singer have signed on as chief innovation officer and chief operating officer, respectively, and another Foundation Medicine alum, Geoff Otto, Ph.D., will head up product development.