AmirAli Talasaz of Guardant Health On The 5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine
11 min readFeb 6, 2024


First, early detection matters. A large number of people still don’t get screened at the recommended times. Only 59% of individuals over 45 years old who are eligible for CRC screening are up to date with this guideline recommendation. We need to ensure people know about these interventions and have access to them.

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?

In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing AmirAli Talasaz.

AmirAli Talasaz is the co-CEO of the leading precision oncology company, Guardant Health, which he co-founded in 2012 with Helmy Eltoukhy.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Sure. I was born and raised in Iran, which requires you to pick a topic of interest while you are in high school that will lead you to your university major. My parents wanted me to become a doctor; however, I decided to go into math and physics. I continued down this path in my early adulthood, eventually getting a masters in electrical engineering. Later, as I pursued my Ph.D. at Stanford University, where I met Professor Ronald Davis, who was the director at the Stanford Genome Technology Center. This sparked my interest to pursue my Ph.D. thesis at the interface of biology and engineering, and led me to where I am today. Through a turn of events, I got back into the field of medicine and worked on innovative diagnostic tests that have transformed the standard of patient care in oncology.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I’m fortunate to have gotten to know several people who made an influence in my career. The first is Ostad Elahi, a philosopher from Iran, who I connected with his thinking and philosophy. He founded an innovative approach to the pursuit of existential meaning, and placed a strong emphasis on community service and helping others. It inspired me when I thought about the potential good that biotechnology can bring to people.

The second is my Ph.D. advisor at Stanford, Professor Ron Davis, who was a profound academic thought leader in the field of genetics. He applied novel technologies to unlock a deeper understanding of biological science, and translated those advancements into founding several entrepreneurial companies. He demonstrated for me that it’s not just about doing great science, but bringing that science to the real world to make a positive impact.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

At Guardant Health, the company I co-founded back in 2012, we have a mission of offering more time to cancer patients. We have developed liquid biopsies tests across the continuum of care, ranging from cancer screening all the way to treatment management in advanced cancer patients.

We put the patient at the core of what we do. Patients tell us that our tests have been able to give them more time with their families, which is the ultimate measure of our work. This mission inspires me and the team at Guardant.

Additionally, by trying to serve the community and make a positive difference, I want to be a good role model for my children. I strive to instill in them the principles I hold myself to: work hard, serve others, commit to excellence, and sacrifice for the greater good.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Currently, Guardant Health is working on securing FDA approval for our Shield test, a blood test for cancer screening in healthy individuals. It would be the first FDA-approved, Medicare-reimbursed blood test for early stage cancers, which is where we are starting. More than 50 million people in the United States do not comply with the current screening, colonoscopy and stool test recommendations. This has led to colorectal cancer becoming the second leading cause of cancer mortalities in the United States.

More broadly, I’m excited about detecting early onsets of different diseases through similar blood tests. I envision a future where, with a simple blood test, we can screen not only for different cancers, but can detect early signs of neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, and other diseases.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?

I started Guardant Health alongside my co-Founder Helmy Eltoukhy. Together, our liquid biopsy tests have transformed cancer management with more than 500,000 tests processed. Our tests continue to have a growing impact.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?

Not to over simplify, but cancer at its core is caused by abnormal mutations or alterations in the DNA code of a cell that leads the cell to grow and divide uncontrollably. Usually our immune system and our bodies can identify these abnormal cells and correct them, but if the DNA of the cell remains uncorrected and cell growth remains unregulated, those can lead to larger damage to the body.

What causes cancer?

Scientifically, cancer is caused by mutations or alterations in a cell’s DNA code. These mutations or alterations have the potential to lead to cancer that can be caused by inherited risk factors, certain environmental exposures, and other causes. There’s usually not one thing that leads to the development of cancer, but rather several risk factors and changes in cellular DNA that can play a role.

What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?

Most people are aware that cancers are categorized by what area of the body the cancer begins in, such as colon cancer or lung cancer. However, there are also specific genetic mutations, similar to a signature or fingerprint, that can tell us more details and information about the type of cancer and increasingly, inform the types of therapies a cancer can be treated with. For years, the only way to determine a cancer’s fingerprint or signature was through obtaining a sample of the cancer tissue, often through invasive procedures like a biopsy. Today, with blood tests like the one we developed at Guardant, we can get the information on a cancer’s fingerprint through a simple blood draw, reducing risk to patients and the time to an answer about what therapies a person and their doctor should consider.

I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?

I know this has been said before, but a healthy lifestyle is the best way to reduce your chance of developing cancer. Also, staying up to date with regular cancer screenings and prevention programs. For example, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States today. However, one in three eligible adults do not complete the recommended screening despite the disease’s high cure rate if detected early. This can be for several reasons, including that CRC screening is unpleasant, time-consuming, and difficult to complete with the options available today. That’s why innovations like our Shield blood test can help. For asymptomatic adults with an average risk of cancer, our blood test aims to ensure that all individuals eligible for cancer screening have access to an accurate, easy-to-complete CRC screening test. We believe that by offering a simple blood test, we can transform cancer screening and help increase the number of people who are up to date with their CRC screening. Blood-based CRC screening is just the start, and we aim to continue to develop other blood-based screening tests to help improve access to these proven interventions.

How can one detect the main forms of cancer?

Cancers have a specific fingerprint or signature that can be detected from a blood sample using advanced technologies, like those by Guardant. We have more than ten years of experience learning and understanding these signatures, which allows us to assess for multiple different cancer signatures within a blood sample. We have done this successfully in advanced-stage cancer at scale, and have demonstrated our ability to do so in early-stage cancer.

Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?

If caught early, cancer no longer needs to be a death sentence. Early detection is a key contributor to survival rates. Through innovative interventions ranging from surgical resections to advanced precision therapeutics options, the life expectancy has improved. Having said that, we are facing an unfortunate milestone in cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that two million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year, the most ever, with the rising rates of colorectal cancer being a contributing factor. Moreover, the number of cancer rates in young adults are trending up, including colorectal cancer. This is where early cancer detection through a simple blood test can make a difference.

Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?

There’s many cutting edge treatments and screenings that are here now. There are advancements ranging from immunotherapy to activate and restore the body’s own immune system in fighting cancer to investigational gene editing to restore health and cancer vaccines. On the prevention side, there are interesting advancements in imaging technologies, especially with the aid of artificial intelligence to novel blood testing for detecting cancer at early stages. These tests and treatments can reduce the mortality rate of cancers overall.

Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?

Cancer is as much an emotional and mental journey as it is physical, and it’s critical to address the full needs of the patient in the healing journey. For prevention, choosing a healthy lifestyle and dedicating time for self care are very important.

From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?

Cancer takes a toll on someone’s mental and emotional health. Oftentimes, patients appreciate having a loved one spend time and listen to them as they go through their journeys. It’s also important to have empathy, and give them space. Not everyone wants to talk about their diagnosis, and being open by letting them know you are there when they need you can go a long way.

Caregivers can also be an advocate for the patient when they meet with their oncologist or broader care team. A caregiver or loved one can learn more about the type of cancer a person has, and try to find out more data and information about it.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

Sure. First, people assume all cancers will be treated best with chemotherapy. However, diagnostic tests like ours can help oncologists determine which therapy will respond best with a patient’s type of cancer. For example, a patient may respond positively to an immunotherapy treatment.

Second, like you mentioned above, cancer is not a death sentence. There are more than 15 million cancer survivors in the United States. Through advancements in intervention and therapeutic options, this number may increase even more in the future.

Last, getting a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re unlucky. In fact, cancer is a common occurrence. One out of two men will get cancer, one out of three women will as well. If you or someone you know has been recently diagnosed, please know that you are not alone. Unfortunately, cancer touches many people, but there are also a lot more treatment options available.

Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

  • First, early detection matters. A large number of people still don’t get screened at the recommended times. Only 59% of individuals over 45 years old who are eligible for CRC screening are up to date with this guideline recommendation. We need to ensure people know about these interventions and have access to them.
  • Second, there will be accessible blood tests available that can detect cancer at early stages. These blood tests have the potential to fill a significant gap in cancer screening.
  • Third, if you are diagnosed, there is hope. There has been an incredible amount of progress in cancer therapies over the past few decades that have made an impact on survival rates. For example, through a simple blood draw, we’re able to understand more about a person’s cancer in a simple, non-invasive way. With these liquid biopsy tests, the treatment choices can be further optimized.
  • Fourth, all of us have the capacity to develop cancer. What determines whether or not we get cancer is through our gene expression. The field of epigenomics, an area that studies the chemical tags that mark the genome, continues to evolve and holds the key to more precise, effective oncology treatments.
  • Fifth, access to innovative technological advancements are very important. The rate of innovation in this field has increased, but innovative breakthroughs would not directly result in improved patient outcomes. We need to make sure patients get access to these innovations in an equitable way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would remind everyone to think about the purpose of life for themselves. As we benefit from others, let’s try to do our part to serve others and our communities. It’s easy to lose perspective when we’re in the mundane of the day-to-day routine, but don’t forget what sparks joy in your life, and bring that to the world when you can. That will make the world better and happier.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow our LinkedIn page for more information.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.

Thank you. Appreciate your time.

About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: “7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger.” From his best-selling book to his impactful work as a media journalist covering resilience and wellness trends with notable celebrities and TV personalities, Savio’s words touch countless lives. His philosophy, “to know thyself is to heal thyself,” resonates in every piece.



Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor