Shots from the Front Row of Boston’s War on Cancer Event

10/22/10

Xconomy’s “Boston’s War on Cancer” forum on Wednesday delivered insights into some of the biggest questions about how scientists might be able to defeat one of the most fierce and complex diseases of our time, cancer. We heard some inspiring developments from Boston-area biotech chiefs whose companies are trying to make cancer treatments more precise, potent, and personalized. So I decided to share some of the major themes and provocative highlights from the afternoon event, hosted by Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company, in Cambridge, MA.

Know Your Target, and Drug Accordingly

Millennium CEO Deborah Dunsire emphasized during her keynote speech that new cancer drugs must treat very specific molecular drivers of the disease. (This targeted approach differs from existing chemotherapy drugs that wipe out healthy cells as well as cancerous ones and make people sick.) Novartis’s imatinib (Gleevec), Dunsire said, was the first targeted cancer drug. And she mentioned several more such cancer drugs on the horizon, such as Pfizer’s experimental lung cancer drug crizotinib and a potential cancer treatment called SGN-35, which Millennium is developing in partnership with Seattle Genetics (NADAQ:SGEN).

“You really make a difference when you can figure out what’s really the driver that we need to go after,” Dunsire said, “and then we can create a therapy that can” inhibit or target that driver.

Alexis Borisy’s Grenade-Hurling Analogy

Guess who played the role of provocateur on our panel of biotech leaders in the field of cancer treatment? Borisy, a partner at Third Rock Ventures in Boston, is also chief executive of Cambridge-based Foundation Medicine. The startup seeks to sequence patients’ cancer genomes to better match them with the appropriate drugs and improve treatment outcomes. He used the following analogy—apropos for an event called Boston’s War on Cancer—to help us see the light:

“We have to recognize that everything that we’ve been doing [to guide cancer treatments] probably explains why the success rates have been so low. We’ve been in a room with the lights off, and we’ve been saying let’s lob these grenades. Now, in the beginning, our grenades were really huge, explosive grenades, and not at all targeted. Then we started to create more specifically shaped grenades, but we still had very little idea what things looked like. That is beginning to change now.”

Three Emerging Weapons Against Cancer

Tumors beware. We got quick looks at three of the Boston area’s most exciting startups that will switch off the genes you need to grow and survive, knock down the epigenetic enzymes that help you thrive, or hunt down any evidence that you are alive. By this I mean that we heard from: Doug Fambrough, chief executive of Watertown, MA-based Dicerna Therapeutics, a developer of new gene-silencing drugs to treat cancer; Mark Goldsmith, the CEO of Cambridge’s Constellation Pharmaceuticals, which is researching drugs that target epigenetic enzymes that control how spools of DNA in our cells are expressed or suppressed; and David Okrongly, the chief executive of Cambridge-based Quanterix, which is developing a single-molecule detection system that might be able to detect signs of cancer recurrence in the blood years ahead of the current state of the art in detection.

The Question of Important Cancer Questions

Tyler Jacks (l) and Mike Huckman (r)

Tyler Jacks, our closing keynoter, directs the David H. Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research at MIT—an organization whose scientists and engineers seek answers to some of big questions about cancer biology. So it made sense for media veteran Mike Huckman, who conducted the chat with Jacks, to ask the noted scientist what some of those cancer questions are. (It also happens that Jacks is involved in the National Cancer Institute’s nascent effort to get more researchers around the country to tackle such questions.)

Jacks pointed to several important major unknowns, but there was one that sounded quite new to me. “What are the essential characteristics of an early lesion that allow it to progress to an advanced tumor that is now invasive, and beyond that will advance further to metastasis [the state at which the tumor spreads to other organs in the body]?”

Perhaps someone will have an answer to Jacks’s question at one of our future forums.


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  • Jens Eckstein

    It should be mentioned that one of the most interesting, albeit uncomfortable, comments was made by an older gentleman in the audience on our understanding of cause and effect in cancer. Unfortunately, the discussion around this issue was cut short due to the call for a networking break – and I am guessing to the relieve of the esteemed panelists. While the experts admitted we’re only just starting to peel the first layers around the complexity of the cancer problem away, their answers generally ducked the question around cause and effect. In my mind this topic would warrant a longer discussion in itself.

  • http://www.contractsassociates.com Colleen Sproul

    Ryan – congrats on putting together such an enjoyable, informative event. Special thanks to the presenters for taking the time to share their thoughts and experiences with us. Tuan Ha-Ngoc’s belief that cancer can only be understood when studied from its beginnings was especially thought-provoking. Looking forward to the next forum!