Gabe Otte
Gabriel Otte

CEO: Gabriel Otte
Based: South San Francisco, California
Founded: 2014
Company website

The scoop

Freenome is one of a clutch of companies racing to develop blood-based screening tests for cancer. Backed by Andreessen Horowitz, GV and other well-known tech investors, Freenome thinks it can enable earlier detection of cancers of the breast, colon, lung, prostate and other organs. Paired with effective interventions, such early diagnoses could significantly improve patient outcomes.

What makes Freenome fierce

Early, accurate detection of cancer from blood samples is as revolutionary prospect as there is in healthcare. Today, it is common for people to die because they were diagnosed too late for drugs or surgery to be effective. The screening tests envisaged by Freenome would make this a far rarer occurrence. Five-year survival rates for many cancers could soar.

Freenome’s attempt to trigger such improvements center on the immune response against cancer cells. Immune cells attack tumors. When these immune cells die, they shed genetic material. Freenome thinks it can tell whether someone has cancer by looking for patterns in this genetic material. That approach sets Freenome apart from some of its competitors.

“Many companies focus on signatures coming from the tumor, yet the stronger and more abundant signatures come from other non-tumor cell types found within the tumor microenvironment,” a spokesperson for Freenome said.

Freenome’s focus on cancer blood tests puts it in the same ballpark as Guardant Health and the superlatively well-financed Illumina spinout Grail. Freenome, with its $72 million series A, is David in a field of Goliaths. But the startup has attracted the attention and support of heavy hitters, on both the investment and strategic front.

Alphabet’s Verily, formerly known as Google Life Sciences, is one of the companies in Freenome’s corner.

“Verily welcomed us into its Partner Space earlier this year, extending office and lab space to us in a novel investment exchange,” the spokesperson said. “Our new lab is now home to a number of high throughput next-generation sequencing machines as well as custom-designed automation technologies. These give us the ability to run a very high number of samples on a daily basis and then translate that information into data for our machine learning team.”

Freenome sees the scaling up of its operation improving its tests. The more data Freenome feeds into its algorithms, the better they should get at detecting cancer and predicting how a patient will respond to treatment.

What to look for

Freenome has teased plans to publish peer-reviewed data on its tests since before it raised $5.5 million in the summer of 2016. Back then, Freenome was due to bring its test to market within nine months, delivering data on route. That deadline came and went. But Freenome is now once again closing in on the publication of data.

“In 2018, we’ll begin publishing data from the different aspects of our work, and presenting at conferences such as the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology,” the spokesperson said.

The data drops will be big moments for Freenome and the broader liquid biopsy field. To date, the nascent sector has attracted large sums of money without publicly posting data that quash doubts about whether the blood tests can come close to living up to the hype. Freenome’s data will hint at whether that is likely to happen in the near term.