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The holy GRAIL for oncology

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

Hi there, my name is Christophe Jauquet. I am a health experience expert who helps pharma companies and healthcare organisations to design better customer experiences.

This is one newsletter - of many more to come - in which I will explain how existing, successful digital innovations put pressure on the current pharma and healthcare business models. More specifically, in this story, I will talk about GRAIL, a company with the ambition to detect cancer before symptoms appear.

The problem?

Cancer is usually only diagnosed when the disease is already too advanced. This is often fatal. But early detection of cancer often remains very difficult today: First of all, there is no early detection yet for the cancers that account for 71% of deaths. Second, the few tests available are often for only one type of cancer.

The solution!

GRAIL enables early detection of 50 different cancers based on a simple blood sample called liquid biopsies. If these tests were part of the annual cancer screening, Epidemiological research, published in the American Association for Cancer Research journal, indicated a reduction by half of late-stage (stage III and IV) cancer diagnoses. And as a result, the number of cancer deaths could decrease by 39% in the early diagnosed patients.

No wonder pharma companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene, Merck, and most of all Johnson & Johnson Innovations were part of the early investors in GRAIL. But also Amazon is one of the major investors. Today GRAIL is worth more than 1 billion euros, and it is planning its IPO already.

Until recently, the test was only available in the US as part of GRAIL's first interventional study, called PATHFINDER. Despite the delay in this study over the past pandemic year, GRAIL presented on the 4th of June the Interventional PATHFINDER Study Data at the famous 2021 ASCO Annual Meeting. The results support Galleri’s performance in clinical settings. The company also announced that Galleri is as of now available in the U.S. by prescription only.

It is assumed that the test would be available in the UK as well before the end of this year.

Find the press release here.

Other solutions !!

GRAIL is not the only start-up that aspires to detect cancer when - theoretically - it is easier to treat. Some very notable competitors are Thrive and Freenome. Thrive is also working on tests that can sniff out multiple types, while Freenome focuses only on colorectal cancer to replace the often-avoided colonoscopy. Interestingly enough: while Amazon finances GRAIL, Freenome has investments by Google (via Alphabet's Verily). So there is some competition on the block

The impact for pharma?

What does this mean for pharma now?

First, digital start-ups such as GRAIL will offer pharma companies big data analytics tools that will help develop their precision medicine strategy further. This is also why they were early and eager to invest in GRAIL.

But GRAIL is also influencing the business model of pharma companies in other ways.

Early detection is likely to have an impact on the reimbursement conditions of some medications. Can you already take this into account when building files for the current oncology compounds?

Early detection can potentially lead to shorter treatments and less income from the sale of oncology products. How can you as a pharma company prepare for this?

The question is, therefore as well: what role pharma and biotech companies want to play in raising awareness of early detection.

But if pharmaceutical companies want to participate in this, it is vital to start setting up awareness campaigns early enough. Previous experiences have shown that it is not easy to mobilise people for early detection. It requires coherent cooperation by an entire ecosystem that won’t be set up quickly. Knowing that solutions like GRAIL are close to hitting the market, pharma companies should already have a motivation to build further relationships with the broader ecosystem of doctors, payers, other pharma companies, organisations and complementary digital health solutions.

But the creation of the communication campaign itself also requires time, effort and sufficient insights to be impactful. How will people respond to systematic cancer detection? Who can communicate about this… in what way… with which arguments? Which digital health solutions will contribute to this awareness?

As a last potential impact, how will early detection change living with cancer? Because if more cancers can be cured more often, what new services and patient experiences will this create? Which digital start-ups are already working on this in your country today? And how can pharma work with them? It seems time to not only think about this, but also start working with them.

In conclusion

GRAIL is a promising digital health solution that will not only radically change the way cancer is detected. It will also directly impact how cancer is treated and how people will live with cancer.

In turn, these changes are already being anticipated by other start-ups that will be part of the new patient journey. But how can the local affiliates of the pharma companies prepare for this change, already today? Feel free to contact me to discuss how you can prepare your business.

Do you know anybody working in the Oncology business? Forwarding this newsletter is but only one click on the button away, of course. Let’s grow this Healthusiasm community together.



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