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Cambridge cancer diagnosticians strike a chord

SAN FRANCISCO — Even in a business known for promising miracles, it’s unusual for a three-year-old start-up that has yet to turn a profit to draw high-profile backers such as Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.

But such is the case with Foundation Medicine Inc., a Cambridge biotechnology company using genomics data and DNA sequencing to help doctors pinpoint treatments for cancer patients. Foundation Medicine had a kind of coming-out party here this week at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, the life sciences industry’s premier gathering of investors.

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First, the start-up said Tuesday that Gates and Milner, a financier who also poured money into Facebook, were part of a new group of private investors who put $13.5 million into the company. They join Third Rock Ventures, the Boston venture capital firm that launched Foundation Medicine, as well as such other stalwarts as Google Ventures and Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Foundation Medicine has now raised nearly $100 million.

Then, after extolling what he called “the most complex molecular test ever performed clinically,” Foundation Medicine chief executive Michael Pellini captured the attention of investors and industry leaders Wednesday by outlining a multi­billion-dollar market opportunity in identifying the genetic drivers of cancer in individual patients and which treatments may be most effective.

Foundation Medicine, which last year began selling its diagnostic test for $5,800, was founded by a team of top-tier Boston area scientists, including Eric Lander of the Broad Institute and biotechnology entrepreneur Alexis Borisy. They were among the first to recognize the importance of understanding the human genome in developing “personalized” medicines to treat diseases.

Pellini said the company’s gene sequencing tests enable oncologists to understand the molecular blueprint of each tumor and present a roadmap of targeted therapies they can use.

“We’re the first to bring next-generation sequencing to the clinical market in oncology,” Pellini said. “What we do is just flat-out difficult. We’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a reason.”

Foundation Medicine doesn’t have the market to itself. Several other companies provide genetic testing for cancer and other diseases, including California-based Illumina Inc. and Life Technologies Corp., both of which are working in partnership with Boston academic medical centers. At the J.P. Morgan conference Tuesday, Life Technologies said it was forming a joint venture with Boston Children’s Hospital to develop tests for pediatric diseases.

But in an interview, Pellini said the Foundation One molecular tests — already in use by about 700 physicians at leading cancer institutes in 21 countries — are more comprehensive than any on the market. They use an approach that enables them to identify mutations that are not found, or even tested for, through traditional diagnostics, he said.

“We say, ‘Let’s put a spotlight on this cancer and let the tumor tell us what the key drivers are,’ ” Pellini said. “We really are starting to marry up the right therapy for a patient’s tumor.”

More conventional diagnostic approaches often require multiple tests costing thousands of dollars each and requiring multiple biopsies, Pellini said. He said Foundation offers a single test that can sequence 236 genes on a tumor tissue sample two thirds the size of a pea.

Dr. Bruce E. Johnson, director of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said that over the past decade researchers began routinely testing for certain “alterations” in cancer cells — mutations that help doctors distinguish between different cancers. He said researchers have gradually increased the number scanned.

New technologies such as the one developed by Foundation Medicine could further expand that number and accelerate understanding of such alterations, Johnson said.

“I want to know as many mutations as possible with my patients,” he said.

The company uses a software algorhythm to feed data from the tissue into analysis programs. That allows them to identify the relevant cancer drivers and, by drawing on a massive database of information about existing and experimental drugs, prepare a blueprint for advising oncologists about treatments.

“They’re setting the bar high,” said Dr. David R. Spigel, director of the lung cancer program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville, an independent physician who has sent tissue samples to Foundation Medicine for testing. “They’ve developed a more rational way to help doctors choose therapies for patients.

“The challenge for doctors is what you can do with the information generated by these tests. You can, hopefully, use their results to tell a patient ‘switch A has been turned on’ and they should take [a certain] experimental drug available in a clinical trial.”

Pellini, a serial entrepreneur, sold his most recent cancer diagnostics company, Clarient Inc. of Aliso Viejo, Calif., to GE Healthcare in 2010. When Borisy called to tell him about Foundation Medicine, he recalled, “It literally took me a minute and a half to think about it. Then I said, ‘My wife is going to kill me, but I have to do this.’ ” Last May, he moved to Cambridge to lead the firm.

The company has about 90 employees at One Kendall Square, but is adding jobs rapidly as more cancer doctors become aware of its genetic sequencing test.

Foundation Medicine is not working exclusively with doctors. It is also selling its tests to 14 pharmaceutical companies, including European drug makers Novartis AG of Switzerland and Sanofi SA of France, which are incorporating the Cambridge company’s tests in their clinical trials.

“We firmly believe this is a company that is going to be around a long time,” Pellini said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.
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