Dr Eugene Chan of Abpro On The 5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
People can make sure to regularly participate in cancer screenings. It’s important to know what age to begin routine screenings, as well as the frequency. Talk with a doctor about when to begin pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies, and whatever other screenings they may suggest based on your medical history.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?
In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Eugene Chan.
Dr. Chan is a physician-inventor. He is currently Chairman, Co-Founder of Abpro, CEO of rHEALTH, and President, CSO of DNA Medicine Institute, a medical innovation laboratory. He has been honored as Esquire magazine’s Best and Brightest, one of MIT Technology Review’s Top 100 Innovators, and an XPRIZE winner. His work has contributed to the birth of next-generation sequencing, health monitoring in remote environments, and therapeutics. Dr. Chan holds over 60 patents and publications, with work funded by the NIH, NASA, and USAF. Dr. Chan received an A.B. in Biochemical Sciences from Harvard College summa cum laude in 1996, received an M.D. from Harvard Medical School with honors in 2007, and trained in medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
A lot of my upbringing was centered around the core values from my family and my community in New Jersey. These values ended up translating to my decision to go to Harvard and obtaining my medical degree, and finally, co-founding Abpro, a clinical stage biotech company, with my brother, Ian.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My family has always been my inspiration to pursue a career in medicine. Having been influenced by the values my family and my community instilled in me pushed me to get to where I am today. My main goal is to ensure I use my gifts and maximize them to ensure people are healthy.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
It’s simple for me — I have dedicated my life to ensuring we all live healthier and better lives. The human condition has improved over time, and that has been a guiding light for everything I do. I consider myself very lucky because, at the end of the day, how hard I work will never compare to the suffering of my patients. I always want to look to find better cures and solutions for them.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
My company, Abpro, has a few exciting projects in the pipeline. Our current focus is on our antibody therapeutic, ABP 310, which is being proven to neutralize multiple COVID-19 variants. Our goal with ABP 310 is to create a “future-proofed” therapeutic, which aims to treat all current and future variants. This was a logical and timely extension of our work, but at our core, Abpro is a cancer therapeutics company. We generate antibodies to interface between a body’s natural immune system to fight cancer.
In recent years, we’ve seen a huge breakthrough in cancer research, specifically with engineering chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cells, which are based off of our body’s own antibodies to help individuals fight cancer. Due to the way they are engineered, we don’t have to take these antibodies out of the patient’s body. These cells help the patient by essentially tricking the body’s immune system into fighting cancer. This form of treatment is less invasive than traditional forms, such as chemotherapy, and takes away a lot of the side effects, like hair loss, nausea, etc.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?
The nature of the medical training I have gone through provides me a clear window of treatment through the use of cutting-edge diagnostics. I have been able to bring a unique angle from a technological perspective, as I strive to figure out how we can leverage the best tools to fight cancer. Because I can combine that with an understanding of biochemistry, it allows me to have an advantage in thinking about the ways we can create the best cancer therapies and treatments.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?
Cancer at its core is altered DNA. It can be a single runaway gene, or several, and any of these changes can result in cancer. For example, a patient can have a single genetic mutation that, for now, is dormant, but down the road can cause cancer.
Early in my career, I worked on a project to create new methods of DNA analysis, using genetic sequencing tools to get to the core of understanding what can cause cancer. From there, I was able to design antibodies to go forth and treat precise types of cancer. Now, our latest findings allow us to treat a specific mutation that is occurring in cancer, giving patients a greater chance for remission.
What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?
Cancer can be divided into different types based on where it develops, with four prominent categories. There are carcinomas, which begin in the skin or tissue covering surfaces of internal organs and glands, and these typically form solid tumors. We then have leukemia, which happens when healthy blood cells change and grow uncontrollably. There are lymphomas, cancers in the lymphatic system, which is a network that helps fight infections. Lastly, we have sarcomas, which develop in tissues that support and connect to the body, such as muscles, nerves, blood vessels, cartilage, or bone.
Cancer can be categorized by where it begins to develop in the body. For instance, the lung, skin, colon, breast, are sites of origin of some of the most common cancers. A runaway lung cell may have different characteristics than a cancerous skin cell, so it is important to know its origins. Underlying each cancer, there may be different DNA mutations which allow them to be treated differently. There may also be a distinction between solid and liquid cancers, with the former being harder to treat and the latter where there are more abundant therapies.
I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?
The main thing a person can do to prevent cancer is to live a healthy lifestyle. Staying away from things that can damage one’s DNA is important. Staying out of the sun, for example, helps to prevent skin cancer. Another way is to decrease the amount of chemicals we put into our bodies — whether that be checking food labels for chemicals, eating more organic and fresh from the farm, and/or avoiding smoking.
How can one detect the main forms of cancer?
As mentioned, cancer is DNA based. Having the ability to detect these DNA changes early on gives the extreme power to go forth and be able to detect cancer as soon as treatment is required. In addition to methods like imaging and self screening, which are still incredibly important, we may, one day, be able to have a single blood test that measures DNA changes and detects cancer before it becomes a mass. This means we may be able to treat cancer even before traditional methods are able to detect it.
Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?
As a society, particularly in the United States, we have made a lot of progress in using novel tools to treat cancer. While we are far ahead of how treatment used to be in the past, at the end of the day, cancer can still win. Today, a doctor deems a treatment plan successful when they are able to extend a patient’s life by one or even five years — but we really need to be able to extend a patient’s life for much longer.
Many of us know friends or family who have fought, or are fighting, cancer, and we want them to be around for a long time. While we do have amazing therapies and treatments available, we need to create improved therapies that harness the body’s natural immune system and augment it so it basically clears the cancer before patients have to fight it through traditional methods (i.e. chemotherapy and/or radiation).
Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?
I am really excited about the ability to augment the body’s natural immune system, specifically with bispecific antibodies. One end of the antibody “tickles” the immune system to activate and attack specific cancer cells.There has been a remarkable impact on people who have used these therapies. At Abpro, we are harnessing this technology to deliver these therapies in an easier way that will be able to benefit patients globally. There are so many companies developing novel therapies — it has been incredible to witness this evolution in healthcare.
Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?
As a physician, this is a tough question to answer, as we only see a snapshot of our patient’s life. A patient may have an appointment with their provider once a week or perhaps monthly. In between those visits, it’s important for patients to take time for themselves and stay busy. Although easier said than done sometimes, patients should try not to get overburdened by the mental aspect of this disease and live their lives to the fullest. This can include spending time with loved ones who can take their mind off their troubles and provide a more positive outlook on life. Anything to bring joy and healing between treatments is recommended.
From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?
I’ve seen loved ones avoid the person who recently received a cancer diagnosis because they are unsure of how to deal with these monumental changes. I don’t recommend avoidance. At the end of the day, this person is still your friend, family, colleague, etc., and they are more than their diagnosis, and could use a shoulder to lean on.
Offering sympathy can sometimes be a response that has the opposite effect than people think it will, as the patient knows that they are ill. The best thing to do is to give these patients the same regular experience(s) they enjoyed before they received their diagnosis, like walks in the park, hikes, or book clubs. While it sounds basic, some of the most important time spent together is just treating them like you normally would, not as someone who is sick.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
Right now, there is a lot of misinformation out there surrounding cancer. People will often turn to the internet for a diagnosis or answers, but that is not necessarily the most reliable source. There is a reason doctors go through medical training and study this research.
Cancer is an awful disease, and there’s a huge misconception that someone needs to navigate the fight alone. That’s not true, there are advanced tools and support systems to help in this journey. There are treatments that can prolong life expectancy, and we are seeing a rise in novel therapies that don’t have side effects such as hair loss, or nausea. Doctors have the best tools at their disposal and are here to help patients and provide them with the support needed.
Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
The main thing patients need to remember is that there are treatments out there that can help. One would hear the word cancer and think it was a death sentence. That is not the case now. No matter what stage the patient is in, there is access available to obtain the care he or she needs.
Secondly, there are a lot of novel tools that exist. For example, an individual can participate in clinical trials and take part in the use of antibody therapies as treatment — and they are very effective.
The third thing to remember is to continue living life to the fullest. Even with a cancer diagnosis, there are ways to find joy in life, often with family and friends. This fight is difficult, but it does not have to be full of darkness and without hope.
Fourth, remember to participate in your care. In order to get the best treatment and outcomes, you have to be involved in your care, you cannot sit on the sidelines if you want to put up the best fight.
Finally, people can make sure to regularly participate in cancer screenings. It’s important to know what age to begin routine screenings, as well as the frequency. Talk with a doctor about when to begin pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies, and whatever other screenings they may suggest based on your medical history.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Obviously, we all wish that people did not have to fight cancer in the first place. But, I want to create a movement by developing these novel therapies with the hope that these treatments will always be readily available and approved.
I want to see more people staying healthy and doing what they can to prevent cancer. Trying to remain healthy, staying away from chemicals that can cause cancer, and being mindful about what people put in their bodies will make a huge impact.
I also want to remind people of the importance of getting cancer screenings. Hopefully we are getting close to a future where blood tests will be accessible and will detect cancer early, but in the meantime, living healthy lives and seeing the doctor regularly are the right steps forward.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.