Illumina: Grail Acquisition & Early Cancer Detection

Former Medical Director at GRAIL

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Walk through the process of GRAIL’s CCGA clinical trial
  • How GRAIL detects for cancer versus Freenome and Thrive
  • The three different assays GRAIL tested that led to the Galleri test product
  • Trade offs between specificity and sensitivity
  • How to interpret the clinical trial results
  • How GRAIL uses data and machine learning to analyze results

Executive Bio

Shilpen Patel

Former Medical Director at GRAIL

Shilpen is a radiation oncologist by training and the Former Medical Director at GRAIL. Shilpen was responsible for running the clinical trials for Grail including the CCGA trial that led to breakthroughs and the upcoming Galleri cancer detection test. Shilpen was deeply involved in testing the different assays and analysing the results from each trial across over 50 cancers. He is now the Medical Director at Genentech where he runs the breast cancer and immuno-oncology division. Read more

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Interview Transcript

Shilpen, can you provide a short introduction to your background in the industry, please?

I’m a radiation oncologist by trade. I did my training in Baltimore and went on to be on clinical faculty at the University of Washington, and then I was recruited to a small startup called GRAIL. That’s where I worked for a little under two years. Most recently, I was recruited over to Genentech to be a medical director, where I'm focusing on breast cancer and immuno-oncology. At the same time, I continued to have an affiliate appointment as an associate professor at the University of Washington's Department of Global Health and an affiliate appointment in the Division of Public Health at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Because you don’t want to keep it too simple, I also continue to see patients here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What exactly was your role at GRAIL?

GRAIL is a healthcare company whose mission is to detect cancer early when it could be cured. They were trying to improve the global burden of cancer by developing technology to detect and identify cancer early. The company has been utilizing next-generation sequencing, population-scale, clinical studies, along with some machine learning, to better understand cancer biology and develop a multi-cancer early detection blood test. I was recruited to GRAIL as the medical director in their clinical development. The goal was to provide strategic input, define the strategy and the tactics required to support GRAIL's product pipeline and the eventual commercial launch, as well as post-marketing commitments that would happen after that commercial launch.

I was in charge of helping develop new strategical relationships and maintaining existing relationships with key opinion leaders along the way. At the very basic level, I was doing the medical monitoring of the CCGA study at the time and interacting with our cross-functional team, including clinical operations, biostatistics, and clinical data management. It was working externally but also working internally. The group of people internally was quite large, including biostatistics and regulatory, and all the other stakeholders that are involved. In addition to doing your day to day as a medical monitor for the CCGA study, in my case, we also needed to provide the scientific and medical support for publications and presentations, which we did quite a lot of while I was there. I enjoyed moving the ball forward in that science arena.

Walk me through how a typical clinical trial works. Take the CCGA as an example. How does it work right from drawing the blood.

Just to take a big step back, a clinical trial is a research study conducted, in our case, on human beings. The goal is to answer specific questions. I’ve been a clinical trialist ever since my career started. Sometimes it’s answering specific questions around a new therapy, or as we’ve heard a lot about in the news, vaccines, or in the case of CCGA, diagnostic procedures of diagnostic assays. Or it could be a new way of using the known treatments that currently exist.

The ultimate goal for clinical trials is they're used to determine whether new diagnostics or new drugs or new treatments are primarily safe. That's something underlying for most clinical trials, and of course, effective as well. If you carefully conduct these clinical trials, it's a quick and safe way to determine if whatever you're doing – whether it is a diagnostic or a therapeutic treatment – will help people. Sometimes we’ll test that first in the lab. Sometimes we’ll test that in animal studies. Ultimately the goal is to move into human clinical trials. The CCGA study was a clinical trial looking at a large swath of people.

I'll switch gears to talk about what the study looked at if that makes sense. After a patient provided informed consent – and that's a critical part of it in our CCGA study – the first step was to determine whether there was cancer present or suspected in this individual. If it wasn’t present, we would include them in the non-cancer group, and we would draw their blood sample. Then we would ship that blood sample. It would be received by our sponsor or designee. It would be accessioned and processed and stored until some time when sequencing happened. Ultimately that would be then run in an assay.

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Illumina: Grail Acquisition & Early Cancer Detection(November 12, 2020)

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