Feeling in control, feeling protected, feeling safe.
Feelings that all of us should be lucky enough to experience, but so many are left without, like the 10 million people that died from cancer last year. The type that they couldn’t prevent.
The type that forces them to go through multiple sessions of treatment that arguably ends up doing more harm than good. The type of treatment that research shows will cost an average of $50,000 a year and usually just a couple of years of extra life.
That’s what got me and a close group of my friends thinking— would there be a way to stop this whole process from happening in the first place? Would there be a way to finally create the feeling of safety and comfort around their health that everybody deserves?
So, why not create a cancer vaccine?
It’s a pretty cool thought, right? Imagine yourself going to the doctor’s office, and getting injected with something that could instantly prevent you from getting a disease that kills millions every year.
A vaccine so accessible and effective, that everyone could have the peace of mind that they and their loved ones would finally have immunity against a disease that’s taken countless lives, for thousands of years.
When we finally develop a cancer vaccine, we could unlock a whole new world of potential in medicine. Here’s how my team at Zelus Biosciences
is coming up with a solution.
The Future Of Medicine Is Prevention — Not Another Cure
At Zelus, we thought about creating that future by viewing cancer through a different lens. The search to find a cure was completely broken. Considering how we have a preventative approach for almost every disease (think the flu vaccine), it was pretty shocking to see why we’ve barely attempted at doing the same for cancer.
Avoiding a disease is so much more valuable than treating its effects as they happen. That’s what we believe can lead to a brighter future — pushing medicine forward through prevention, not another cure, and making everyone feel the sense of security around their health that they deserve:
If governments and research groups don’t try approaching cancer like they already approach every other disease, then we’re essentially turning an already complex problem into something impossible. Zelus aims to change that by making the problem simpler, by focusing on a simpler
(but still ambitious) approach — by creating a revolutionary form
of cancer vaccine.
Well, now that you know we’re trying to develop a cancer shot, you’re probably wondering how we’re going to do it. Let me take you through
every step of the process.
The Strongest Vaccines, To Fight The Strongest Diseases
Think of our cells as microscopic factories working 24/7 x 365 to keep you alive and healthy. From the vast amount of research conducted on cancer, we know that they occur as the result of a genetic mutation — the equivalent of a malfunction in one of the factory’s machines. Fortunately, our bodies have in-built repair systems in place to fix the issue.
Sometimes though, even those systems break down.
In the scheme of the huge factory, a small machine breaking down isn’t an issue, but after a certain tipping point, the repairs are more than what the workers can handle at once. Cancer is almost exactly that, but worse. Usually, our body makes new factories, but picture those malfunctions spreading to other factories faster than new ones can be made, and faulty ones can be discontinued. Slowly but surely, the entire city shuts down for good:
The inside of a cancer patient is essentially a mini warzone — a constant battle between cancerous cells trying to spread and the body trying to suppress it. Over time, cancers even have the ability to turn our bodies against us by redirecting blood flow towards them or weakening our immune response. Biologists this system of trickery cellular signalling pathways.
Cellular pathways are basically what our factories use to connect and adapt to external factors, like ramping up production when demand increases, or slowing it down when it plummets.
Pathways function through chemical reactions, and the accumulation of genetic mutations results in these reactions being inhibited (blocked) or activated to cancer’s advantage. For example, a cancerous mutation could skew one of our pathways called EGFR and stop cells from dying, let them multiply uncontrollably, or even become resistant to medications:
At Zelus, we asked : “Why not prevent these mutations in the first place?”
As it turns out, we do have methods that can support our cellular pathways
by resisting the negative effects of cancerous mutations. By using compounds designed to reverse the forces cancers exert on our pathways, Zelus’ next-gen vaccines allow our body to negate them almost completely.
So far, we’ve documented dozens of pathways linked to cancers, but the
good news is that the majority of cases present with just four or five major ones. That’s why Zelus aims to develop the first generation of vaccines containing a large combination of compounds that strengthen cellular pathways and prevent cancerous mutations.
AI— Making Vaccines In Five Years Instead Of Fifteen
Of course, creating a vaccine makes tackling cancer a lot easier, but that’s far from saying it’s a breeze. If the problem was just killing off cancerous cells, then we would’ve done that a long time ago.
Take chemotherapy — a cancer treatment designed to target rapidly multiplying cells (a property that most cancers share):
Chemo would kill off most cancers almost 100% of the time, but also destroys healthy cells that grow rapidly in the process too, like hair and skin. Not an ideal treatment.
The bottom line? Focusing on destroying cancerous cells isn’t the way to go. Things can start to get complicated when we have to take into account factors like safety , cost, or whether multiple chemicals being combined could have negative interactions in patients.:
In fact, the Mayo Clinic created a plan to develop cancer vaccine — we just have to wait 8–10 years for that to happen. The whole pipeline is almost completely human-run, and that can lead to its own set of challenges. Even if the organization did end up successfully developing a vaccine, what if a more pressing issue came up where we had to develop one as quickly as we could?
That’s the situation we’re being faced with in trying to develop a vaccine for a rapidly spreading pandemic like COVID-19 — we’ve only just started to realize the severity of the issue. Just because current systems work fine, doesn’t mean they’re where they need to be. Sooner or later, we’ll either be forced to change from a new crisis, or we’ll have the option to be ahead of it:
“Zelus doesn’t just develop vaccines for cancer’s sake, it does it for future’s sake.”
The process to develop vaccines is a tough one — going from a list of millions of candidate compounds to test tubes, petri dishes, mice, and finally human trials. You probably see the problem here. The natural rules that dictate whether a compound would be effective in preventing cancer are hopelessly complex for any human to understand — not to mention that the physiology of cancer in mice and glassware isn’t remotely close to a human’s:
That’s why Zelus uses a unique machine-learning based approach to try getting meaningful insights that would allow us to narrow down millions
of candidates down to one. Using the vast amount of data available on cancer inhibitors, we can create a sizable dataset that our model would be capable wringing out useful patterns from, and ultimately be used as part of our arsenal to find compounds up to 3X faster than usual.
Using this technique, we’re not only prioritizing speed, but efficiency as well.
Well-trained machine learning model can analyze, fit, and separate data in thousands of dimensions. That means the candidates we narrow down are orders of magnitude more likely to be effective against cancer, but also to be that much more targeted, safe, affordable than the status quo. If the future is coming, then AI is our best bet to get there.
What?! You haven’t gotten your cancer shot yet? A reality people thought was so far-fetched that they never gave it a chance. That’s the reality we want to bring to life. One where people have the ability to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, and where we don’t think twice before getting a vaccine that was considered completely impossible just five years ago.
Everything Zelus has, is, and ever will do, is in our effort to try and push
the limits of medicine past the boundaries the world has set. To see a day where everyone would get to experience the comfort and security of knowing that their health is in their hands. We might never be able to achieve that in our lifetimes, but, we’re certainly going to try.
Hey! Aaryan here! Hopefully you enjoyed reading about our team’s goal at Zelus! P.S we’re looking for talented minds to join our team that resonate with our vision and core values. To learn more about what we do or to join our team, feel free to visit www.zelusbio.com. Thank you for reading 👏.