Using genomics and AI for faster detection of infectious diseases
A once healthy older man was admitted to the hospital experiencing sepsis and respiratory failure from an out-of-control unknown infection. Broad-spectrum antibiotics were deployed, along with a battery of tests and attempts to culture the most common culprit infectious organisms. The antibiotics didn’t work and the tests were negative, as the patient’s condition became ever more grave. Fortunately for this man, his doctors sent a sample to DCVC portfolio company, Karius. In a single day, Karius diagnosed an infection by a particular type of tuberculosis bacteria, with only one blood draw — hypothesis free.
He received the appropriate treatment and improved considerably. Meanwhile, a reputable laboratory continued to laboriously identify a hypothesis, culture samples, and wait for the result. When the first hypotheses failed, they tried again and again for three weeks until they delivered the same diagnosis. For many patients, days, let alone weeks, can be the difference between life and death.
Similar stories with favorable endings have occurred multiple times during Karius’ initial clinical trials, where the speed and accuracy of Karius dramatically improved patient outcomes.
DCVC is very proud to back the Karius team and founders Dr. Mickey Kertesz and Dr. Tim Blauwkamp as they tackle one of the world’s leading killers — infectious disease. Along with our friends at Lightspeed Venture Partners, we have co-led a $50 million Series A round for Karius, following onto our seed investment. We are joined by major new investors Tencent and Khosla Ventures, with participation from existing investors including Innovation Endeavors and Spectrum 28. The round will support ongoing and new clinical trials, scale up laboratory capacity, and advance commercialization of the Karius test.
Critically, the Karius test is hypothesis-free. Put simply, instead of testing each possible diagnosis one-by-one, Karius can today detect 1,250 pathogens from a single blood draw within one business day. Rather than subjecting a patient to an array of broad-spectrum antibiotics and invasive follow-up biopsies, hoping that something will stick, doctors can now deliver the right drugs for the right pathogens in time to make a difference. Painful and risky biopsies are at best eliminated, at worst dramatically minimized relative to current practice. Expensive — and increasingly resistance-vulnerable — broad-spectrum antibiotics (or anti-fungals or anti-parasitics), many with significant harmful side-effects, are not used.
Karius uses a combination of machine learning, proprietary genomics algorithms, and next generation sequencing, to identify and amplify the signal from “non-healthy” microbial (viral, fungal, bacterial, and other eukaryotic pathogens) DNA fragments floating in the blood. Through its CAP-accredited and CLIA-certified labs, Karius provides diagnostic insight to doctors based on this new cell-free DNA data, enabling quicker and more precise diagnosis and treatment of infectious disease.
Karius’ potential impact on patients and global health is tremendous. As Dr. Mickey Kertesz, Karius’ CEO explained:
Infectious diseases are a leading cause of mortality globally and an enormous area of unmet need. Clinical results from our early access program demonstrate that the Karius test allows clinicians to diagnose infections more rapidly and accurately. We’ve enabled doctors to devise precise and effective treatment plans for patients and speed recovery times. We look forward to further broaden availability of our technology in the coming months.
Notably, as the Karius team gathers more data from its tests, they will be able to detect new, unknown microbes and track the spread of outbreaks — a critical arrow in the quiver in the battle against virulent, standard treatment-resistant infections.
DCVC invested in Karius on account of the outstanding team, advanced computational biology, ever-increasing defensible “moat” of their unique technology, data and insights, and tremendous potential impact on global health. Their science came from their work with a trusted friend of DCVC, the brilliant Dr. Steve Quake, the scientific co-founder of Karius. Dr. Quake is Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Stanford, MacArthur Prize winner, and current co-President of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub.
We first invested in the core team at their previous company, which significantly advanced sequencing before being acquired by Illumina. At Karius, they are combining advanced molecular biology techniques with the “dry lab” computational advantage that underlies many successful DCVC investments (next-gen genomics algorithms, novel machine learning). We feel that Karius is a case study in replacing capex- and opex-heavy processes — individually culturing samples — with data and computation. Most importantly, Karius will save lives that would otherwise be lost to increasingly virulent infectious diseases.
Congratulations to the Karius team — we’re honored to help you bring this test to the world.