The story of Shepherd Therapeutics’ founder is perhaps just as intriguing and unusual as the service it’s seeking to provide. Founded by then-28-year-old French major and Harvard Divinity School graduate, former Navy SEAL and rare cancer survivor David Hysong in 2016, Shepherd Therapeutics is a biotechnology startup that uses software, artificial intelligence and proprietary algorithms to research and develop new cures for rare cancers.
As Shepherd Therapeutic’s own website points out, cancer isn’t one disease, but many. There are 300+ discovered forms of cancer, and each cancer requires its own very specific set of clinical trials, and its own specific therapeutic or cure.
Now rare cancers are cancers that afflict, or are diagnosed in, fewer than 6 in 100,000 people each year, and they include sarcomas, and brain, oesophageal, cervical, prostate and most paediatric cancers, among others. A 2010 study published in the journal Public Health Reports found that “rare cancers” accounted for 25% of all cancer diagnoses in the US, and a 2017 study in the Indian Journal of Medical Research says that rare cancers account for 22% of all cancer diagnoses worldwide.
It becomes particularly difficult, in the current medical and economical climate, to develop cures for rare cancers for a variety of reasons. Most of the funding that goes into cancer research is poured into the more commonly detected types of cancer, like breast cancer, lung cancer and skin cancer, while rare cancers get pushed to the sidelines. Pharmaceutical companies, which drive a lot of the research around cancer, are also less motivated to work on developing cures for rare cancers, because the market for such cancers is much smaller than other, more commonly diagnosed cancers that affect a numerically higher number of people each year.
There are also the inherent difficulties in carrying out trials and collating existing and new information about rare cancers given the very small patient population to conduct trials on.
Given the lack of research, understanding and available cures for rare cancer, in 2006, a group of Italian researchers actually found that the survival rate for rare cancer patients was nearly 18% less than for patients with common cancers.
Shepherd Therapeutics claims that there are 100+ rare cancers for which there just exist no cures at all. They believe that millions of people affected by rare cancers who could be saved–if only adequate research and development was being done to find therapeutics for their kinds of cancers–shouldn’t simply be left to die.
Shepherd Therapeutics’ solution
Shepherd Therapeutics approach looks to combine “traditional statistical methods and machine learning techniques” with the “decades of combined experience [their] scientists bring” to the current medical and business landscape around cancer research in order to speed up the drug discovery and development process. In a nutshell, it collects and identifies viable research around rare cancers, and then contracts scientists and labs to develop therapies for them.
It basically aims to create the deepest informational insight into rare forms of cancer, and through the collection and creation of these knowledges and insights, to speed up and lower the cost of the process of getting therapeutic projects into labs, hopefully resulting in cures being developed for patients.
The process begins with collecting as much qualitative and quantitative information as possible about each cancer, which the company refers to as “mapping the mutational landscape”. Shepherd Therapeutic claims that it collects data that other drug development companies don’t have the time or energy to collect, including mutational burdens, patient profiles, natural history, optimal cell lines, clinical trial histories and business data around existing research.
Their in-house computational system (DELVE) and its laboratory engine (ADA) stores every piece of data that Shepherd Therapeutics collects, and connects existing information resources using AI and machine learning. It adds qualitative variables to quantitative data, attempting to identify target overlaps between different rare cancers, and comparing experimental data from its labs with existing literature, to potentially eventually lead to the automation of identifying potentially synergistic drug combinations through research.
It also bridges gaps in the knowledge its computational system creates using, wherever possible, literature surveys, discussions with researchers and mathematical deconstructions, using both technology and human ingenuity to accelerate the process of finding cures for rare cancers.
The company and its unique founder
After completing a liberal arts major at St John College in Annapolis, David Hysong was hit by a 12-ton bus whilst investigating child slavery in Cambodia. Whilst recovering from this accident, he applied to Harvard Divinity School (on a dare), from which he graduated in 2009. He was then chosen through a special program to join the Navy SEALS, shortly after which he was diagnosed with a lung infection called SIPE (Swimmer Induced Pulmonary Edema). Further medical attention into this infection revealed that Hysong was suffering from a rare and incurable form of head and neck cancer, called Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC).
Being told that there is no cure to his form of cancer only inspired Hysong to leap into action, to use everything he had to make a difference to the medical landscape as it stands today, and to make sure, to paraphrase a Dylan Thomas quote that once featured on Shepherd Therapeutics’ website, that rare patients “did not go gentle into that good night”. He leveraged his Harvard network and partnered with former executive vice president of Genzyme, Eugene WIlliams, to form Shepherd Therapeutics in 2015.
Intriguingly, Hysong claims that Shepherd Therapeutics is the only “all female” biotechnology company he knows of, and that his core research team is made up entirely of women. He also claims that his team members are driven largely by passion for the cause, and that some have taken 75% pay cuts to be part of the project.
As of January 2018, Shepherd Therapeutics has raised $6.5M in funding, and has external collaborations with the National Cancer Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When asked about Shepherd Therapeutics’ competition, Hysong told Biospace that while there are 200 biotech companies that mention that they are working on one or more forms of rare cancers, there is no other single platform systematically working on developing cures for different types of rare cancers.
As for the future, Hysong says that they aim to expand their research products and ecosystem, and in the long term, to become a “fully integrated pharmaceutical company.”
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