Technology giant GE has pledged to invest $1 billion in cancer research over the next five years to drive the development of new diagnostics and therapies, kicking off with a $100 million innovation grant focusing on breast cancer.

GE's chief executive Jeff Immelt said yesterday that it was setting up the award fund with the help of four venture capital companies to try to encourage the development of promising new approaches to diagnosing breast cancer.

The ultimate aim is to help health care professionals better understand and treat tumours associated with so-called "triple negative cancer," i.e. any breast cancer that does not express the genes for estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR) or Her2/neu. This formis less responsive to standard treatments and typically more aggressive.

Other targets will include gaining insight into the molecular similarities between breast cancer and other solid tumours, improving early detection, allowing for more accurate diagnoses and making treatment decisions more personalised.

Winners of the grants will be notified in the first quarter of 2012, said the company.

Meanwhile, a $200 million-a-year internal drive to expand its cancer diagnostic, molecular imaging and cancer drug development technologies will form the first part of its $6 billion "Healthymagination" programme announced in 2009, said GE.

Part of that programme will be the creation of a first-in-kind "super-database," which will consolidate clinical, pathology, therapy and outcomes data in one place to be shared with " leading cancer research, NGO and government organisations."

John Dineen, president and CEO of GE Healthcare, said: "Cancer is a complex disease and because every patient’s cancer is different, oncologists need advanced tools to 'fingerprint' individual cancerous tumours."

The company also pointed to its ongoing work with ultra-portable mammography systems (SenoCase) and contrast-enhanced spectral mammography techniques (SenoBright), designed to improve both access to and the accuracy of breast cancer screening.

The latter has started to roll out in some markets outside North America, and is pending approval in the USA.