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After Losing His Wife to Cancer, Google Exec Jeff Huber Will Lead DNA Testing Venture

Jeff Huber’s wife died of colon cancer. As the head of Grail, he is on a mission to develop a kind of blood test that could have saved her.
February 10, 2016

A senior Google executive, Jeff Huber, will become the CEO of Grail, the high-profile company launched in January to develop and commercialize cancer blood tests.

According to Forbes, Huber’s wife, Laura, died from colon cancer last November, leaving behind two teenage children. “That’s a big part of why I’m taking this up,” Huber told the magazine.

Grail was unveiled in January by DNA sequencing giant Illumina, along with investors Arch Venture Partners, Sutter Hill, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos, who in total put $100 million behind the venture. 

The tests Grail plans to develop, called “liquid biopsies,” could be given at an annual physical to check for cancer. The tests use fast DNA sequencing machines to scan for genetic material that even tiny tumors shed into the bloodstream.

At Google, now renamed Alphabet, Huber led the maps and commerce efforts, reporting directly to CEO Larry Page, before being bounced in an executive shuffle in 2013 and ending up at Google X, the search company’s skunkworks.

As the head of Grail, Huber will have to manage a huge undertaking very different from Google’s software. To prove the tests work to screen for cancer, Grail and its collaborators will need to run massive clinical studies and negotiate access to tens of thousands of cancer patients and their blood samples.

That means Huber will need to corral competing medical centers and navigate what Vice President Joe Biden in January termed the “cancer politics” holding up cures.

Huber was already indirectly involved in the gene-sequencing revolution after joining Illumina’s board in 2014. But his personal story may provide the most powerful rationale for leading Grail. “I had already been ramping up on the biology and science behind this, and then there was this very poignant reminder of the implications that there has to be a better way to do this," Huber told Reuters.

In fact, the cancer that killed his wife, colon cancer, is potentially the most easily discovered by a liquid biopsy. In 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported performing liquid biopsies on the blood of more than 1,000 cancer patients. Of all 15 cancer types they looked at, none was more readily detected than colorectal cancer.

While some tumors, like brain cancer, don’t show up well on the tests, the Hopkins team spotted cancer DNA in 100 percent of people with advanced colorectal cancer. Importantly for early detection, they also found a cancer signature in about 70 percent of those whose disease was still localized.

It means that had the test been available, it could have saved Huber’s wife, whose cancer was found only after it had spread to her chest and neck. “She’s one story among millions of stories,” Huber told Forbes. “She could have had surgery before it spread, or she could have gotten treatment before it evolved and mutated, before it became more aggressive.”

Huber will also have to manage the extraordinary hype around the new tests, none of which has yet been proven to help patients. On Tuesday, a different test provider was the target of an investigative report by CBS News for exaggerating the benefits of its test.

(Sources: Forbes, Reuters)