Shepherd Therapeutics transforms the rare cancer landscapeBy Marissa Sumathipala
Shepherd Therapeutics launched in 2016 with a mission to develop breakthrough treatments for rare cancers. Powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, their drug development pipeline has already yielded seven promising drug assets in preclinical trials. With an innovative drug development pipeline and leadership with decades of experience in biotechnology, Shepherd Therapeutics was featured in Forbes 30 under 30 Healthcare 2017. I sat down with founder and CEO, David Hysong, to learn more about his journey to creating Shepherd Therapeutics.
David Hysong’s journey to becoming founder of Shepherd Therapeutics is filled with unexpected twists and turns along the way. He was working in South East Asia as an investigator for human trafficking when he was hit by a bus and severely injured. After he “flipped that into [his] admissions essay”, he relocated to Harvard to study religion and ethics at the Harvard Divinity School. David’s plan to join Special Operations in the military was cut short when he fell sick during training. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with a rare form of head and neck cancer. He met a six year old girl with the same from of rare cancer, and soon after, dozens more patients suffering from the same lack of approved treatments for their cancers.
“I realized I was far from alone. There are hundreds of thousands rare cancer patients every year and the vast majority of us don’t have any access to modern medicine or anything that’s newer than 50 or 60 years old.”
– CEO & Founder David Hysong
Driven by his own harrowing experience, David teamed up with Gene Williams, a former senior VP at Genzyme with decades of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Eight months after his diagnosis, David founded Shepherd Therapeutics, a company “by a cancer patient for cancer patients.”
As David personally experienced as a rare cancer patient himself, rare cancers aren’t so rare as one might expect. Rare cancers comprise 30-50% of all cancer diagnoses, and of 396 known cancers, 374 are rare forms (Source: American Association of Cancer Researchers). Prevalent cancers like breast and lung cancer are not one single cancer as one might think, but rather are divided into myriad forms, both rare and common. For example, 11% of all breast cancer diagnoses are a rare form of the disease (Source: Shepherd Research). With a market size of 16.98 billion for breast cancer, that equates to a market size of roughly 1.87 billion for rare breast cancers alone (Source: Grand View Research). Other rare cancers are also prevalent, such as sarcoma, which is estimated to have a market size of 703 million (Source: Grand View Research).
Each form of cancer has its own set of molecular drivers, and thus requires different treatments tailored to the disease’s unique molecular signature.
Despite their prevalence, rare cancers remain an unmet area of need in medicine. From 2012 to 2016, 75% of all clinical trials did not include a single rare cancer (Source: American Association of Cancer Researchers).
All Star Team
After founding Shepherd in January 2016, David raised 1.5 million in funding which was used to hire top leadership for the company, recruiting from major biotechnology companies like Sanofi and Genzyme. Dr. Johanne Kaplan, CSO, was a VP of research at Genzyme and spent over 2 decades at the pharmaceutical company gathering experience in gene therapy and oncology research. Shabnam Kazmi, Chief Business Officer, received her MBA from Harvard Business School and has experience at Sanofi and Bristol Myers Squibb. Dr. Bill Siders was a Senior Director of Research at Genzyme before moving to Shepherd Therapeutics as the Chief Development Officer. Gene Williams, co-founder of Shepherd, was not only a senior VP at Genzyme, but has also worked in healthcare commercialization strategy at Bain & Company and co-founded Dart Therapeutics, an orphan disease drug development company. He’s currently Executive Chairman at ProMIS Neurosciences and holds a B.A. and MBA from Harvard College and Harvard Business School, respectively.
Regarding his non-traditional background as founder of a biotechnology company, in a space where typical founders have prior experience in business or scientific research, “People who are willing to break molds and do things entirely different generally aren’t familiar with how things have been done before.” says David. He attributes his success in overcoming a non-traditional background to three core capabilities: storytelling, learning quickly on the job, and the courage to not be hemmed in by what has been done before. These core skills were crucial to David convincing top executives in biotech to join Shepherd, many of whom took a 70-80% pay cut from their previous jobs. After putting together his team, David Hysong landed in Forbes 30 under 30 Healthcare 2017.
A Departure from Tradition
Disrupting the traditional approach to drug development is what Shepherd aims to do. Because of the unique and varied nature of rare cancers, Shepherd began with taking a “systematic approach”, says founder David Hysong. Shepherd’s team took time to understand the complex rare cancer landscape, creating a “mini tech company” inside Shepherd. They’ve created an artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning driven platform. The platform, called DELVE, is powered by a comprehensive database that integrates scientific research, public datasets of genetic and molecular cancer information, and results from in-house wet lab experiments.
“With this DELVE platform, I can take any drug in the world and match it with the rare cancers where it is most likely to be effective.”
– Founder David Hysong.
In contrast to most AI driven drug discovery which typically relies only on such quantitative molecular data, Shepherd also integrates qualitative data such as patient outcomes and clinical trials to improve their predictions. The data-driven DELVE platform enables Shepherd to screen existing drugs and predict new drugs. DELVE can be used for what is called drug repositioning: taking a drug on the market for a common cancer and looking for biological overlap with a rare cancer. Then, DELVE predicts what rare cancer the drug might be repurposed to treat.
In addition to leveraging DELVE for applying other companies’ drug assets to rare cancers, Shepherd is currently developing 7 novel drug assets—4 internally and 3 with partnerships. Each of these drugs would be the first frontline treatment for 14 different rare cancers. Going forward, Shepherd plans to have their four in-house drug assets in Phase I clinical trials. They’ve raised a total of 6.5M thus far and are currently closing a 20-30M round currently. Their lead investor is Dr. Ruth Shabder from Kaiser Permanente, and other investors include Minerva Capital.
Shepherd Therapeutic’s competition includes a range of pharmaceutical companies that are developing drugs for rare cancers. An example includes Eli Lilly, which recently bought Loxo Oncology, a company focused on targeting rare genetic mutations in cancer. Another example is Novartis, whose areas of development in oncology includes four types of rare cancer. However, Shepherd is the first ever and only company on the market to dedicate all of their resources and take a systematic approach to saving rare cancer lives. The success of their unique, multifaceted approach to rare cancer, and the level of unmet clinical need in the space, is evident in the higher than normal number of drug assets Shepherd has in development: while most companies at their stage will have one or two assets, Shepherd has seven.
Creating new business models
Outside of drug development, David Hysong works closely with Capitol Hill to transform the rare cancer landscape from a policy perspective. He’s writing a “full, comprehensive piece of rare cancer legislation” that mandates front line diagnostics for every rare cancer patient in the country. Because rare cancers vary greatly across different types and between patients, getting genetic and molecular information from a patient is crucial to informing the best course of treatment. While as founder David Hysong says, “The ability to leverage biology is a huge step forward”, most insurance companies don’t reimburse patients for these front-line diagnostics, and he hopes this new piece of legislation will change that. This social impact component, combining the traditional drug development approaches of a traditional biotechnology company with the advocacy work typically associated with a non-profit, sets Shepherd apart from their competition.
A Billion Life Idea
Shepherd is currently operating in the rare cancer space, but founder David Hysong says he sees a much larger problem with how drug development companies are structured that he’d like to go after. With companies being investment and market driven, they don’t go after root causes, David says.
“I want to create a new blueprint for how companies are set up, mesh the two worlds of non-profits philanthropy and for-profit capitalism together.”
– CEO & Founder David Hysong
He hopes to one day see a companies like Shepherd working in global issues where there is a “disconnect between the markets and philanthropy”, ranging from HIV to clean water access. His biggest challenge he foresees is scaling Shepherd Therapeutics from a biotechnology startup into this billion life idea.