Don Listwin is funding scientists who work on early detection of tumors.

Bird's-eye view: Non-biologist Don Listwin says early detection is the key to combating cancer.

Don Listwin only received what he calls a 'gentleman's B' in his college biology courses. Every other word the former Silicon Valley executive utters is geek-speak: words like 'modular' or 'intersource' or 'platform,' which dazed biologists have to ask him to explain.

But Listwin's ideas for biology are right on the money. He is pouring millions into developing technologies that can identify early-stage cancers—one of the hottest areas of cancer research.

I learned that the key to treating cancer was to catch it early. , Don Listwin, Canary Fund

Listwin's mother died of ovarian cancer two years ago and his father is a cancer survivor. After spending more than a decade at the helm of high-tech firms such as Cisco Systems and Openwave, Listwin retired last year at 45. Now he devotes much of his time and money to promoting early cancer detection. “When my mother was suffering from ovarian cancer, I spent years researching this disease, and learned that the key to treating cancer was to catch it early,” he says.

In the past two years, Listwin has pledged more than $15 million to researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco. He spent another $1 million to set up the Canary Fund—named for the birds that warn miners of toxic fumes—to support early detection research. A lover of fast cars, Listwin also bought the San Jose Grand Prix, and is auctioning off rides around the San Jose race track in a real stock car to raise funds.

The US spends nearly $10 billion each year on cancer research, most of it for developing treatments or for patient care. But scientists are increasingly focusing on detection.

High-throughput technologies such as gene expression profiling and proteomic analysis can detect cancer biomarkers in blood and urine. Hundreds of 'molecular markers' of tumor formation and progression have been reported in the scientific literature, but little has been done to translate these into reliable and cost-effective diagnostic tests. Despite the number of known markers, gene expression or proteomics data from one study or patient population can rarely be applied to another.

Through the Canary Fund, Listwin says he plans to use the skills he honed in building the internet during the 1990s to develop computer systems that can standardize data analysis. A large proportion of the grants will go to biotechnology companies and computer scientists. Listwin—with advice from Nobel Laureate Lee Hartwell and others on the fund's scientific advisory board—hand-picks recipients of the fund's grants, which now amount to $2 million.

He also plans to speed up translation of the technologies to the clinic through open-source initiatives, which were instrumental in developing the Linux computer operating system.

“Right now, researchers have to hoard all their information until it is publishable,” Listwin says. Easing the financial pressure on scientists would allow them to share and modify each other's technologies. One company he plans to support is LabKey Software, which builds free open-source systems that allow scientists to collect, process and share data.

Listwin is also working with the US Food and Drug Administration to set standards for evaluating detection methods. The agency does not yet have ways to assess the effectiveness of early diagnostic technologies, according to Larry Kessler, director of the agency's Office of Surveillance and Biometrics. For example, it's not clear how early, or with what specificity or sensitivity, the assay should be able to detect tumor markers.