Life Science

Climbing for a Cause

I was both inspired and humbled yesterday during The Boston Cancer Summit hosted by the Fred Hutch Cancer Center and Luke Timmerman. An impressive gathering of medical researchers, biopharma executives, policy experts, investors, and innovators congregated in the aptly named “Guiding Star” conference room at Alexion’s HQ in Boston’s Seaport District. Alexion describes their staff as “explorers, transformers, innovators, and adventurers.” We were clearly in the right place! Amongst the participants were many of the climbing adventurers who are embarking on an epic journey to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro this summer.

The afternoon opened with very personal and moving stories from some of the climbers (Luke Timmerman, Uciane Scarlett, Katrine Bosley, Praveen Tipirneni, and Daeidra Smith). They described family members with an infectious “passion for life” or those who were in the midst of their young lives as parents when they were diagnosed with cancer. This amazing group will be climbing one of the world’s most breathtaking mountains in honor of loved ones who have battled cancer and to help raise money for cancer research.

We were reminded of the alarming global statistics by Simba Gill of Evelo Biosciences. Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally with around seven million new cases worldwide each year. This number is expected to be climbing to over twenty-five million new cases of cancer each year by 2040, according to the World Health Organization. Seventy percent of cancer cases occur in low- and middle-income countries where there is limited access to treatments.

Explorers and innovators came in several flavors contributing to the panels and presentations throughout the day. Investors (Elliot Segal, NEA, and Doug Cole, Flagship) and pharmaceutical companies (John Reed, Sanofi, and Paul Biondi, BMS) described their philosophy and approach to identifying and partnering with innovators working on breakthrough ideas and companies with promising assets that will extend and complement their internal research and development, respectively. I was honored to join the session of short science presentations which included Evelo Biosciences, Schrödinger, Relay Therapeutics, Checkmate Pharmaceuticals, Obsidian Therapeutics, and Cullinan Oncology. The short talks described a diverse range of approaches to speed and transform the discovery and development of new medicines for oncology patients.

Transformers like Zoë Barry, CEO of ZappRx, were motivated to develop completely new digital systems by the struggles her family member and many patients face in gaining access to FDA-approved life-changing medicines. These much-needed disruptions are reinventing the patient- payer- and provider-proximal events in the therapeutics value chain. They also have exciting potential to impact research and development by providing patient data insights that have previously been difficult to access. Large biopharma companies like Roche/Genentech are exploring more efficient and cost-effective paths to the development of medicines as well as personalized healthcare solutions via partnerships with new and emerging platforms.

The future of cancer care and the challenging question of how to optimize, measure and manage the pricing of cancer medicines (led by Jeff Berkowitz and Leora Schiff) across patients in diverse care settings were two thought-provoking discussions that brought the day to a close. Finding ways to accelerate the exploration of drug combinations that build on and improve the current practice of empirical I/O combo testing in numerous clinical trials was debated by David Schenkein (Agios / Partner GV), Mary Lynne Hedley (Tesaro now GSK), Cindy Perettie (Foundational Medicine) and Deb Palestrant (5AM Ventures). Leveraging the growing number of curated datasets from real-world data and high-quality genomic patient data will clearly be important tools for the future.

The summit was filled with ideas and opportunities that seek to help current and future cancer patients get faster access to safer, more efficacious and affordable medicines. The assembled group of explorers, transformers, innovators, and adventurers, some wearing multiple of those “hats,” represented a unique convergence of future prospects, fitness, climbing, and philanthropy.

While I won’t be climbing the Eastern Rift mountains of Tanzania this summer, memories of those I know who have been affected by cancer and yesterday’s stimulating discussions give me a renewed sense of urgency to accelerate our exploration of a different kind of topography. Therapeutically-relevant pockets and binding sites revealed by structural, molecular dynamic and topographic analysis of protein targets and their interactions with inhibitor molecules, the “pocketome”, have important potential to inform the design of new medicines that will impair the growth and spread of cancer cells.

I wish the ‘Climb to Fight Cancer’ team all the best for the Kilimanjaro adventure and back at the Fred Hutch cancer research labs with the funds that are raised.

Author Photo: Karen Akinsanya

Karen Akinsanya

Karen Akinsanya, president of R&D, therapeutics, joined Schrödinger in 2018. Karen leads the therapeutics groug with responsibility for preclinical drug discovery and translational research. She has more than 25 years of experience in academia, pharmaceutical R&D, partnerships, and licensing. Karen joined Merck Research Labs in 2005 and held positions of increasing responsibility in clinical pharmacology as a development team leader working on first-in-human studies through late-stage label studies before joining Discovery Preclinical & Early Development as a therapeutic area lead and then a search and evaluation lead in business development. Karen received her Ph.D. from the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Imperial College in London, in endocrine physiology. After post-doctoral training at Imperial and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (UCL), Karen joined Ferring Pharmaceuticals in R&D working across sites in the UK and US. At Ferring, she led the discovery of a family of dipeptidyl peptidases related to DPPIV and pre-clinical characterization of FDA-approved FIRMAGON® for prostate cancer.

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