NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – China's BGI has invested in cancer genetic testing startup Geneplus-Beijing, GenomeWeb has learned. The company recently completed a RMB 200 million ($30 million) Series A funding round that was led by BGI but also included venture capital firms Green Pine Capital Partners and Shanghai Huoshanshi Capital.
According to a spokesperson for BGI, the investment is the "first step to establish cooperation" between the two companies.
The spokesperson added that Geneplus-Beijing has expertise in cancer genomics and next-gen sequencing and would be developing tumor-testing products.
Geneplus-Beijing was founded in 2015 by former BGI employees: Xin Yi, previously COO of BGI Diagnosis and now the chief technology officer at Geneplus-Beijing, and Ling Yang, the firm's CEO, who was previously general manager and director of BGI-Tianjin's clinical laboratory.
Yi told GenomeWeb in an email that the company has developed five oncology tests that "cover the entire cancer prevention and treatment cycle." It offers a test for hereditary cancer, OncoH; a test that assesses known drug targets, OncoD; one that looks at clonal evolution and tumor burden called OncoMD; an assay to evaluate relapse risk following surgery called OncoMRD; and an immune-based test that evaluates lymphocyte diversity, OncoIR. In addition, Yi said that the firm is working on an early cancer detection test called OncoET. In total, the tests cover 1,021 cancer-related genes.
Yi said that BGI would support the company strategically in its "development of liquid biopsy technologies and related clinical applications." Aside from NGS technologies, he said Geneplus-Beijing is working on three related technologies for detecting ctDNA.
One of these technologies, called ER-seq, is used to reduce background noise in ctDNA sequencing. It enables the firm to detect low-frequency mutations down to a limit of .1 percent frequency with 99 percent sensitivity and greater than 95 percent specificity, he said. In addition, the firm is developing an analysis pipeline called mTBI, based on proprietary algorithms, to evaluate tumor burden, as well as an analytical tool called mClone that enables quantitation of tumor clonal evolution.
Yi said that the company recently launched a clinical research project to "monitor the dynamics of cell-free DNA," and is now recruiting patients with late-stage lung and breast cancer.
In July, researchers from Geneplus-Beijing, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Houston Methodist Research Institute published a clinical observation study in PLOS One evaluating a circulating tumor DNA assay that assessed mutations in 545 genes. The researchers used the assay to evaluate primary tumor tissue from six patients with colorectal cancer who had undergone surgery, as well as 23 plasma samples from the patients that had been collected over time.
They were able to detect low frequency mutations, down to an average frequency of .88 percent, in preoperative plasma samples of four patients. A subset of these mutations also occurred in their primary tumors. In addition, they demonstrated that elevated levels of ctDNA were sometimes a better predictor of relapse than traditional markers such as carcinoembryonic antigen and cancer antigen 19-9. In one case, a patient's ctDNA burden had increased 13-fold at disease recurrence despite having normal levels of CEA and CA 19-9.
The BGI spokesperson declined to disclose the details of the investment in Geneplus-Beijing and why the firm would invest in a potential competitor. However, she said that BGI would provide future support, branding, as well as both capital and other resources to Geneplus-Beijing, adding that "as a leader in the NGS industry, BGI is willing to build the platform to [service] other companies' vertical development."
BGI has been developing its own clinical NGS tests and has made significant progress on the regulatory front, becoming the first to receive clearance from the China FDA for an NGS-based noninvasive prenatal test. It was approved to run its NIFTY assay on both the BGISEQ-100 and BGISEQ-1000, platforms based on Thermo Fisher Scientific's Ion Torrent technology and Complete Genomics' sequencing technology, respectively.
Last year, BGI also received approval from China's National Health and Family Planning Commission to conduct clinical sequencing services for cancer. In addition, BGI's two clinical laboratories in Shenzhen and Tianjin have licenses to participate in China's clinical sequencing pilot program, and it offers a range of tests that are either CFDA-approved or licensed under the pilot program, including its NIFTY test, a 500-plus cancer gene assay, a hereditary ovarian and breast cancer assay, PGS/PGD testing, and a newborn screening assay for genetic diseases.