Former Google Exec to Take Helm at San Francisco Diagnostic Firm Grail

Former Google Exec to Take Helm at San Francisco Diagnostic Firm Grail
February 10, 2016
By Alex Keown, Breaking News Staff

SAN FRANCISCO – Newly launched Grail has found its chief executive officer—Jeff Huber, a former Google executive who spent the past two years as a senior vice president in the company’s life sciences division, Google X focusing on big data.

GRAIL, which spun out of San Diego-based Illumina in January, is focused on using diagnostics to develop early-stage cancer detection. The company is using gene-sequencing technology developed at Illumina to develop a blood test to identify all types of cancers. For new CEO Huber Grail’s mission is very personal. His wife was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Because of its late diagnosis, Huber likened it to a death sentence. Laura Huber died in November 2015 after an 18-month battle with the disease.

“Our current healthcare system isn’t designed to identify people like Laura who have no family history or contributing risk factors. Grail’s mission is to develop a test that can help physicians detect cancer early enough to enable curative treatment before it’s too late,” Huber said in a statement.

In addition to his work with Google X, Huber led development of Google’s advertising products and Google Apps, and ran Google’s Geo division, including Google Maps and Google Earth.

Grail launched in January with the idea of creating a “pan-cancer” screening test able to diagnose cancer at an early stage prior to symptoms. The technology measures circulating nucleic acids in blood. Such a search is something of a “holy grail” for oncologists. Early cancer detection would allow multiple treatment options for patients and increase chances of long-term survival. When the company launched, Jay Flatley, chairman of Grail’s board of directors and CEO of Illumina, posited the market for early cancer detection is between $20 and $200 billion.

“We believe this effort has the potential to save millions of lives, and convert cancer to a curable disease for many through early detection,” Flatley said in a statement.

Grail is backed by more than $100 million in early investments, from Illumina and Arch Venture Partners. The company has also received support from tech industry leaders including Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

There are other companies focusing on blood testing for early cancer detection. The “liquid biopsy” is being used as a supplement to conventional biopsies, typically for patients already diagnosed with cancer. Guardant Health and Exosome Diagnostics have raised $100 million and $60 million respectively to fund their work.

There are some challenges to the use of a blood test to diagnose cancer. Among the challenges is that all cells shed DNA into the blood, as well as the countless number of mutations in a genome, not all of which are cancerous. To compensate for those concerns, Flatley said Grail plans to conduct DNA sequencing on 30,000 to 50,000 people over time as a way of building approval for its test. Grail hopes to start a large-scale clinical trial in 2017. It also plans to have a single-cancer test available in 2017 as well, with the possibility of the pan-cancer test being on the market in 2019.

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