How I am helping in the development of a cancer drug

I came to the Smith school in pursuit of a career in healthcare, but I never expected to present scientific data to leading scientists and PhD students. That is what I just did as a President’s Entrepreneurial Fellow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, a sister school of the flagship state school in College Park. After the first meeting, it was unclear to me how I could contribute to a team consisting of two other Smith students (Brett Depenbrock and Anya Oleynik), a UMD undergraduate (Ariel Kotch), and several UMD, Baltimore PhD students in biology, and others studying for careers in patent law and pharmacy.

The fellowship director, Rana Quraishi, is seeking our assistance in the out-licensing of a promising drug compound for cancer that was developed in the university labs. Her description of the task was a great lecture on the drug development process, and the ever-growing role of academic researchers within it.

Myself (in the corner) with the other fellows and the doctors in the back. This photo accompanied the Tweet from The Grid, the biopark of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The school is seeking to find an investor or entrepreneur who will pay for the rights to the compound, and then take it to early-stage testing and clinical trials. While I enjoyed learning about the drug development process, I was unsure how I could contribute, for Rana wanted the team to read up on the compound’s scientific “mechanism of action.” This seemed like a task the PhD students were best-suited to take on. But learning how to contribute in the face of ambiguous challenges is what business school is all about, so I put on my thinking cap.

I ended up combining the data analysis that I skills learned in MBA with my prior research ability and industry knowledge gained as a journalist covering the pharmaceutical sector. By performing tasks like transcript searches on a cool database at the Smith school known as S&P CapIQ (which I had already used during my tenure at S&P Global), I found numerous instances of other companies where interested in drug compounds similar to ours. I also made an excel pivot table of outside research in area using a repository of clinical trials that I used to search as a journalist. It was fun to carve out a niche for myself in so-called “business intelligence.”

It turned out to be an impactful presentation, and it was nice to get a shout out on Twitter. Although the drug compound is being studied to treat breast cancer at the moment, I pointed out that the data collected from the website, ClinicalTrials.Gov shows that other researchers are doing experiments on similar experimental drugs to treat a variety of other cancers, especially brain cancer.

I was a little nervous presenting this information to renowned scientists like Dr. Darryl Carter, who in 2008 founded a drug company that raised more than $50 million in outside funding. But when I provided the information about others’ related research, he said that the university should investigate the drug compound for uses in other cancers, and the fellowship director agreed. 

It is crazy to think that I might have in some way impacted the development of a drug that could someday save many lives. The fellowship experience has been terrific. I have learned to work on cross-functional teams, and how to lead my MBA classmates, for they do not have pharmaceutical industry “domain knowledge” or investigative skills that I possess due to my prior background. I am grateful for the university and state for providing me this opportunity via the President’s Entrepreneurial Fellowship, as well as a $5,000 stipend to compensate me for my efforts.

Varun Saxena

Varun Saxena is a first-year, full-time MBA student at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of business. He covered healthcare as a journalist for publications such as FierceMedTech, Medical Device Daily and S&P Global News. He is aiming to work in the healthcare industry upon graduation. In his spare time, Varun enjoys playing intramural sports and reading. He has a Bachelor's in economics from George Washington University and a Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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