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Pharmaceuticals

SoftBank-backed biotech firm brings Asia cancer diagnostic tools

AI innovator Guardant Health will launch lab in Japan, seeks partners in China

A new technology allows physicians to detect cancer through a blood test. (Photo courtesy of Guardant Health)

TOKYO -- Asia accounts for less than 50% of the world's cancer patients but almost 60% of cancer deaths, partly due to lack of early detection.

SoftBank-affiliated Silicon Valley biotech venture Guardant Health thinks it can help. From a simple blood test, its diagnostic platform can identify a genetic mutation behind a patient's cancer in just a week. This lets the patient's doctor provide targeted treatment and paves the way for personalized medicine.

Founded in 2012 by two electric engineers, Guardant Health will open its first lab outside the U.S. in Japan early next year through a subsidiary and is searching for strategic partners to provide the service in China. Its diagnostic tools are ethnically agnostic, company officials say.

Detecting cancers from bodily fluids such as blood, urine and saliva is known as liquid biopsy, a rapidly emerging field of medicine.

Guardant is expected to soon file for regulatory approval for its diagnostic platform in Japan, according to Simranjit Singh, CEO of the subsidiary,Guardant Health Asia, Middle East and Africa, a Singapore-based50-50 joint venture between Guardant Health and SoftBank Vision Fund. "We hope to be able to submit very soon," Singh told Nikkei Asia. Singh said he wants to start the service in Japan "as quickly as possible."

Cancer killed 5.5 million in Asia in 2018, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, far more than the COVID-19 death toll of 150,000 so far this year. The situation is expected to become even graver as Asia grows richer and older, because people become more susceptible to cancer as they age or if they have unhealthy lifestyles such as being inactive, overeating or drinking alcohol.

Singh has an ambitious target for his business for Africa, the Middle East and Asia. "We think that we will be able to get to at least about $130 million by 2024," he said. Guardant Health reported a revenue of $214 million last year, a 2.4-fold increase.

Japan will serve as a base for Guardant Health AMEA's expansion in Asia. "The lab in Fujisawa (south of Tokyo) serves not only Japan but also other Asian, Middle East and African countries, so we can have a faster turnaround time" than sending the blood samples back to the U.S. for examination, Singh said.

After Japan, China is likely to be Guardant Health AMEA's next major base in Asia.

"The next big market we are focusing our attention on is China," Singh said. "The next lab we will have is most likely in China, with a partner."

About 60% of late-stage lung and stomach cancer patients in Asia are in China. "We see the volumes," Singh said. Other targets are developed economies such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.

Artificial intelligence is apparently what has brought SoftBank to the biotech company.

Guardant uses machine learning to analyze the vast genomic data it has collected from more than 100,000 test samples and improve its ability to identify cancer-causing mutations.

Guardant Health has been one of the most lucrative investments for SoftBank's $100 billion Vision Fund. Its initial $308 million investment in Guardant had gone up more than sevenfold to $2.2 billion as of the end of June. The fund has been selling some of its investments, including Guardant shares, amid a booming public stock market.

AI-driven health care technology remains a key investment theme for the Vision Fund. Ten of the 86 portfolio companies in the first fund are in health tech, including U.S.-based Relay Therapeutics, which went public in July.

SoftBank's Japanese mobile arm, SoftBank Corp. also has ventured into health care businesses as it seeks growth outside of its core phone business. Last year it launched Healthcare Technologies, which operates an online medical consultation app.

Despite SoftBank's backing, Singh says the business environment isn't easy.

Investors have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic and have also become less tolerant of losses following the recent U.S. tech bubble burst, from which SoftBank itself has suffered severely.

"The pandemic has made the business environment very difficult, " Singh said. "Investors are more cautious because they want to see that there is a pathway for profitability." They are more scrutinizing about the validity of the technology and the size of the potential market.

Guardant Health AMEA is going to increase its staff in Japan to 60 from around 40 as it opens the lab. The investment is funded with its own capital, worth about $50 million, put up by the two parent companies.

Personalized medicine has become a hot area and has attracted other entrants. In the U.S., 23andMe conducts tests for hereditary cancer risk, while Grail focuses on detection of early stage cancer. In Japan, Toshiba has been undertaking liquid biopsy development, while NEC is working on personalized cancer vaccines.

Last year, Japan's national health insurance allowed reimbursement for genetic profiling using tissue samples, such as a test developed by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Foundation Medicine. Liquid biopsy platforms have yet to be approved.

Guardant officials say its platform was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August and is the very first-line tool for diagnosing cancer patients in the U.S. They are hoping for broad adoption in Japan as well.

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