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Longevity and lifespan: how early cancer detection technology is offering hope for people throughout the Boston region

GRAIL teams up with Massachusetts-based Point32Health and John Hancock to bring innovative early cancer screening and detection to customers.

When considering longevity, most of us are familiar with the concept of life span. However scientists and health professionals are now also weighing the impact of healthspan, which is not simply about how long you live, but how long you live well and free from disease. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as the focus turns to improving health outcomes and supporting healthspan, Greater Boston is carving out a reputation as a potential longevity hub, with world-class hospitals and teaching institutions that sit at the forefront of advocacy and research on improving quality of life. One path of innovation within the city’s health and healthcare companies has been to tackle cancer outcomes through early detection and treatment, and two well-known local organizations are leading the way in this effort. 


Point32Health and John Hancock establish innovative collaborations with GRAIL

In 2021, GRAIL, a biotech healthcare company, launched Galleri®, a multi-cancer early detection test that can detect a signal shared by more than 50 types of cancer through a routine blood draw. This means that, in many cases, cancer can be found during the initial and often asymptomatic stages of the disease. When a cancer signal is detected, the Galleri test predicts the cancer signal origin, or the tissue or organ associated with the cancer signal, with high accuracy to help guide the next steps to diagnosis. 

The Galleri test requires a prescription from a licensed health care provider and should be used in addition to recommended cancer screenings such as mammography, colonoscopy, prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, or cervical cancer screening. The test is monumental as a first step in the screening process — it provides people with more information about the potential cancer cells in their bodies than ever before.

Point32Health, a not-for-profit health and well-being company, and John Hancock are two Boston-based companies and the first in their respective industries to work with GRAIL to bring the Galleri test to their members and customers.

“Historically, insurers are not known for being fast or cutting-edge. Partnering with GRAIL is one of the ways [Point32Health and John Hancock] are willing to take prudent risks that offer real hope for cancer patients.” — Dr. Glenn Pomerantz, chief medical officer, Point32Health.

Point32Health is the first commercial health plan in the US to work with GRAIL to offer its Galleri screening test in addition to recommended cancer screenings. The initial pilot program, first announced in February of 2022, enabled access to Galleri at no cost for eligible Point32Health employees and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care members who purchase their insurance on the Maine health insurance marketplace. The pilot has since expanded to now enable access for Point32Health’s Tufts Health Plan or Harvard Pilgrim Health Care commercial members who meet eligibility requirements for the test and their primary care provider.

In September of 2022, John Hancock became the first life insurance carrier to make the breakthrough screening technology available to eligible customers through the John Hancock Vitality Program, enabling these customers to take proactive steps to better understand and make more informed choices about their health. Since starting their work with GRAIL, John Hancock has made the Galleri test available to 44,000 customers, as well as eligible John Hancock employees.

In a panel at the Globe Summit 2023, Dr. Eric Klein, distinguished scientist at GRAIL, joined Kate Wallis, vice president of clinical innovation at Point32Health and Lindsay Hanson, chief marketing officer at John Hancock, to talk about the Galleri test, and GRAIL’s partnerships with Point32Health and John Hancock. 


Why early detection is crucial for better outcomes

For the average person suddenly faced with the life-changing prospect of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, the cost implications are often even scarier, making care inaccessible for many. According to the World Health Organization, cancer treatment for patients diagnosed early is two to four times more affordable than treating patients diagnosed with cancer at later stages.

And while cancers like breast cancer, cervical cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer are commonly screened for early on, there are more than 100 types of cancer possible in the human body. According to 2020 data from the World Health Organization, trachea, bronchus, and lung cancer deaths ranked sixth among leading causes of death, only the latter of which is regularly screened for with early detection tests.

From left to right: Kate Wallis, vice president of clinical innovation at Point32Health; Lindsay Hanson, chief marketing officer at John Hancock; Dr. Eric Klein, scientist at GRAIL; and Janet Wu, news anchor at Bloomberg.

“When you’re looking at this type of technology, of course, the hope is that you’re detecting cancers that don’t have screenings, but you’re also hoping that you’re shifting the paradigm as far as diagnosing earlier when the costs are lower and the outcomes are better,” says Point32Health’s Wallis of the Galleri test.

Moving equity and access forward in health care

John Hancock and Point32Health plan to spread awareness (and in some instances, access) of GRAIL’s Galleri test throughout their large customer bases, first by making it available to the demographic most at risk, those over 50. However, Wallis notes that cancer screening and detection continue to present access challenges for various other populations. “Not enough people are even getting the screenings available at this point due to barriers as far as access.” For instance, some tests like a colonoscopy might only take an hour or less, but this estimate does not include the time required for preparation and recovery which could cause disruption to work or family schedules, which not everyone may be able to do or can afford the financial impact of lost wages. While the Galleri test does not detect all cancers and should be used in addition to routine cancer screening tests (like a colonoscopy) by a health care provider, the innovative nature of the detection of cancer signals and prediction of where in the body the cancer signal is located through a blood draw does provide hope for the future of cancer screening technology and how it’s accessed. 

 “Innovation has the potential to perpetuate or even exasperate inequities so it’s important that we’re thoughtful about these innovations that have the potential to displace the standard of care…There’s a lot of technology out there — it’s understanding where that real value is for our members and navigating that.” — Kate Wallis, vice president of clinical innovation, Point32Health

Boston is the home of cutting-edge innovations prioritizing longevity and living healthier lives. Novel advancements targeted at elongating both life spans and healthspans are occurring in the city’s medical, technological, occupational, financial, housing, and transportation realms. Thus, the decision of two local companies to blaze trails in their industries by offering GRAIL’s cancer detection test to their customers is just one of the myriad ways Boston is earning its moniker as the “Silicon Valley of longevity” and this is only the beginning of a promising new era for creativity and invention in regards to helping the population age strong. The full recording of the panel discussion featuring Point32Health, John Hancock, and GRAIL is available in the Summit’s video library.

Three women sit in individual chairs as they receive their Chemotherapy by intravenous.

Point32Health is a not-for-profit health and well-being organization, guiding and empowering healthier lives for all. Bringing together over 90 years of combined expertise and the collective strengths of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Tufts Health Plan, and our family of companies, we help our members and communities navigate the health care ecosystem through a broad range of health plan offerings and tools.


This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.