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Sean Reyes: The Federal Trade Commission is blocking access to a life-altering, early detection cancer test

The federal agency needs to get on board with President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot.

(Alex Brandon | The Associated Press) The Federal Trade Commission building in Washington on Jan. 28, 2015.

Jon Huntsman Sr. was a friend and mentor of mine with an audacious dream. After losing his mother to cancer and being diagnosed with cancer four times himself, this titan of business and man of faith became determined to find a cure for this devastating disease.

To achieve that dream, he built Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) in Salt Lake City and convinced some of the best cancer researchers in the world to come work with him. Since its inception, HCI has been at the forefront of significantly improving cancer detection and reducing cancer mortality.

HCI has sponsored groundbreaking clinical trials and has identified more genes for inheritable cancers than any other cancer center in the world through its Utah Population Database. This unique tool has identified and studied individuals and families that have a higher than normal incidence of cancer, allowing researchers to analyze patterns of genetic inheritance and identify specific genetic mutations.

The work of the Huntsman Family and HCI are a point of great pride to us in Utah. In a similar vein, President Joe Biden, who has visited HCI and who lost his own son to cancer, launched the Cancer Moonshot to “end cancer as we know it.” I have consistently applauded this worthy goal.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the administration is living up to that commitment. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is inexplicably trying to block a deal between two American companies that would make a revolutionary multi-cancer early detection test available to millions.

These companies, Illumina and GRAIL, have developed cutting edge technology — a blood test called “Galleri” that can detect more than 50 different types of cancer at early stages, when cancer is most curable.

This is a classic American tale of innovation. In 2015, Illumina founded GRAIL to develop a blood test capable of detecting multiple cancers in asymptomatic patients. In 2017, Illumina spun the company off to enable the outside investment needed to fund large and expensive clinical trials.

It was a bold decision, but within five years, the companies’ efforts were successful. Galleri became available to select patients in the U.S. in June 2021, but with a high price tag that the merger would greatly reduce. The importance of this innovation cannot be overstated. Cancer kills 600,000 Americans per year and is the country’s second leading cause of death.

Studies show that early cancer detection improves clinical outcomes, quality of life and survival, meaning broad access to the Galleri test could prevent thousands of cancer deaths in the U.S. alone annually.

With the White House Cancer Moonshot initiative, we would have expected the Biden administration to embrace this life-saving effort. But that is not what happened. The FTC has engaged in an unprecedented campaign to block this deal even though it concedes that multi-cancer early detection is a “a game changer for cancer patients and their loved ones.”

The FTC claims it is blocking this deal to protect competition, but the FTC’s own Chief Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found after a multi-week trial that there are no tests that compete with Galleri and will not be for at least five to seven years.

Undeterred, FTC staffers appealed to their own Commissioners (political appointees) who overruled the ALJ despite not having heard live testimony from a single witness. The FTC is determined to pursue an arcane and discredited ideological agenda and refuses to give up, even when American lives are at stake.

As a state regulatory agency with antitrust enforcement authority, my office has concurrent powers with the FTC to support or block mergers, and I have been on different sides of many merger attempts.

From my view, this case is a “no-brainer.” There is no competition lost. There is no increase in consumer costs. The market is not harmed nor are any consumers harmed by the merger. Conversely, many Americans will be harmed if the merger is thwarted.

After delaying this merger for more than two years in its internal process, the case is now in front of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a hearing took place in September.

It is unconscionable to elevate ideological and outmoded antitrust theories over the very real benefits of an early cancer diagnosis, particularly where a powerful early detection tool could be widely deployed but is stymied by regulators.

Jon Huntsman Sr. referred to himself as the founding member of the “cure cancer party.” He recognized that none of us — rich or poor, man or woman, Republican or Democrat — is safe from the uncertainties and ravages of a cancer diagnosis, particularly one that comes too late.

We have all watched friends suffer and loved ones die from this terrible disease. A federal agency charged with protecting consumers has lost its way when it blocks access to a life-altering, early detection cancer test without a legally sound reason.

Let’s put our hopes for a cancer-free future in the hands of the innovators and not in the hands of the regulators.

Sean Reyes

Sean Reyes is the Attorney General of Utah and former partner in a technology venture fund.

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