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Gates and Bezos invest in cancer testing venture

Image: Sequencer
Illumina’s gene sequencers are already being used to study cancer cells, and the new venture known as Grail is expected to take the field to the next level. (Credit: Illumina)

One of the giants of gene sequencing, Illumina, has spun off a new $100 million company called Grail to create an all-in-one blood test for cancer – and its investors include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

The name reflects the view that such a blood test is a “holy grail” for cancer diagnosis. Grail would use ultra-deep gene sequencing to look for the characteristic nucleic acids that are shed into the blood by tumors. Those traces are known as circulating tumor DNA, or ctDNA.

If the technology is perfected, it could offer a non-invasive way to find out if a patient has cancer well before symptoms appear. That would better the chances for treatment.

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Iceman mummy suffered tummy troubles

Researchers Eduard Egarter-Vigl and Albert Zink sample the 5,300-year-old Iceman mummy in 2010. (Credit: Samadelli Marco / EURAC)
Eduard Egarter-Vigl and Albert Zink sample the Iceman mummy. (Credit: S. Marco / EURAC)

An analysis of the stomach contents from a 5,300-year-old European mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman has turned up a double surprise, scientists say.

First, the researchers found DNA traces of a nasty strain of bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, which is linked to ulcers. That discovery, paired with the presence of other immune-system proteins, suggests that the Iceman could have been suffering from stomach problems in addition to his other maladies – ranging from hardening of the arteries and lactose intolerance to Lyme disease and bad teeth.

The second surprise came when the research team looked more closely at the bacteria’s genome. The DNA sequence showed that the bacterial strain wasn’t the one that’s most common in Europeans today, but is linked instead to modern-day populations in South Asia.

That finding appears to answer questions relating to the peopling of Europe thousands of years ago, the researchers report in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

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Gene-editing startup Editas files for IPO

Image: Feng Zhang with student
Broad Institute researcher Feng Zhang, one of the founders of Editas Medicine, works in his lab with graduate student Patrick Hsu. (Credit: Justin Knight / NSF)

Editas Medicine filed the paperwork for an initial public offering today, marking a first for the growing number of private ventures that aim to take advantage of a powerful gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9.

Among Editas’ private investors are Bng0, an investment company with funds from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates; Google Ventures, the venture capital fund associated with Alphabet; and Khosla Ventures, the fund fronted by startup whiz Vinod Khosla. The company is collaborating with Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics on cancer treatments that take advantage of immunotherapy.

Editas was founded by several of the pioneers in the use of CRISPR-Cas9, a method that lets researchers snip and edit a wide variety of genomes to correct glitches or insert new code.

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Scientists list brain’s common gene patterns

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An image from the Allen Brain Explorer shows gene expression across the human brain. (Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

Researchers say they’ve traced 32 of the most common genetic patterns at work in the human brain, as part of a mapping project that could lead to new insights about Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

“We’re really trying to understand the genetic basis for the architecture of the human brain,” said Ed Lein, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and one of the authors of a study published online on Monday by Nature Neuroscience.

Lein told GeekWire that the study, based on data from the Allen Human Brain Atlas, demonstrates “we’re really much more similar than we are dissimilar” when it comes to the genetic code for our brain’s wiring. The genes that are most consistently associated with specific regions of the brain include some associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, as well as epilepsy and disorders associated with cocaine and nicotine use.

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DNA art honors genetic pioneer Francis Crick

Image: Kindra Crick
Portland artist Kindra Crick shows off “What Mad Pursuit,” a sculpture inspired by the work of her grandfather, DNA pioneer Francis Crick. (Credit: Alex Crick / @crickontour)

The granddaughter of genetic pioneer Francis Crick joined 20 other artists to create a series of 7-foot-high sculptures inspired by DNA’s double helix – and now those sculptures are going on the auction block to benefit cancer research.

Portland artist Kindra Crick told GeekWire she took on the project for several reasons: She’s trained as a molecular biologist as well as a painter, and her grandparents include the late Nobel-winning biologist and his artist wife, Odile Crick. What’s more, proceeds from the auction will go to the Francis Crick Institute, a London facility that’s due to open next year with backing from Cancer Research UK and five other leading medical research organizations. The two-week online sale begins on Wednesday.

Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize with colleague James Watson for revealing the double-helix structure of DNA, died in 2004 at the age of 88 after battling colon cancer.

“This seemed like the perfect project, not only to bring awareness to the institute, but also to use my skills and my background to present this beautiful union of art and science,” Kindra Crick said.

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