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Cancer took Google exec Jeff Huber's wife. Now he's CEO of one of the most audacious cancer startups in years: GRAIL.

Stashed in: Awesome, Medicine, Bill Gates, science, Jeff Bezos, Cancer, DNA

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The idea is that cancer cells shed DNA (and also RNA, a related genetic messenger) into the bloodstream. What Illumina’s scientists seemed to be finding was that if you sequenced DNA again and again, not just 30 times as researchers do to get an accurate copy of a single human genome, but hundreds of thousands of times, they thought they could detect these bits of cancer DNA and RNA. Actually making such a blood test would mean finding combinations of many genetic mutations, and require much more research. But the idea was potentially world-changing: a blood test that could detect many types of cancer, early.

Last month, Illumina announced that it was creating a new company, GRAIL, to create this blood test. It is backed with $100 million in funding from Illumina, Sutter Hill Ventures, ARCH Ventures, Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions and Bill Gates. Today, the company is announcing that Huber will serve as its chief executive. And he’s clear that one reason he’s taking the job is because of what he saw his wife suffer through.

Sounds promising. I wish GRAIL and Jeff Huber much success.

A blood test that could detect many types of cancer early would be a huge breakthrough.

Sad backstory:

His reasons are scientific, but also personal. On November 10, Huber’s wife Laura, died of colon cancer. She left behind two children, ages 12 and 14. “That’s a big part of why I’m taking this up,” Huber says.

Before Laura became sick, Huber was already turning his focus toward biology. He missed the energy of his early days at Google, the early days of ads, of Google Apps, of Google Maps. Rather than jumping back into building a big system at Google, it felt to him that biology was going through a “phase change,” like the transition from analog to digital. The ability to get huge amounts of data–like DNA sequence–would allow researchers to understand complex biological systems. And he had the expertise to help with that revolution.

He joined the board of directors at Illumina, the company that has pushed forward dramatic increase in scientists’ ability to read DNA code. He focused his own projects on life science.

Then cancer crept up on Laura. She was 46, super-healthy, super-fit and full of energy. She had no family history of cancer. She felt her energy ebb, he says, and at first the doctor just told her she was going through menopause. But the diagnosis didn’t seem to fit, and they decided on more tests. And endoscopy and colonoscopy were expected to turn up irritable bowel syndrome, or perhaps, at worst, Crohn’s disease, the inflammatory bowel disorder.

Instead, they found a two-centimeter colorectal cancer tumor. Still, the news seemed good. The tumor was small, and the chances that surgery would cure her seemed high. But before performing surgery, doctors did a standard test: they gave her a bit of radioactive glucose. Cancer loves glucose, the body’s main form of sugar, and as a result the radioactive form makes tumors light up on a PET scan. Laura had cancer in her liver, throughout her abdomen, through her chest, and all the way up to her neck.

They attacked the cancer with every drug they could, all sorts of chemotherapy and, toward the end, new drugs that boost the immune system. “By the time she was diagnosed, by the time she was in treatment, the cancer had spread extensively, was attacking other systems in the body, had evolved further and it was just too aggressive,” Huber says. Laura died three months ago today.

As his family had its personal battle with cancer, Huber had been watching a new idea for fighting the disease take root from his board seat at Illumina. The company had been looking for new uses for its DNA sequencing machines, and its scientists thought that they had found clues that they could detect cancer early with a blood test.

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