Bid to beat cancer gets personal at Richmond firm

Growing up in a small, Ohio town, Dr. Sandra Dunn didn’t just one day wake up and decide she wanted to be a molecular biologist.

True, she was so keen at learning about science that her grandparents suggested she go to medical school.

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But all a young Dunn knew was that she wanted to help people.

“I came from pretty humble beginnings. My parents were not scientists,” said Dunn. “They were not college grads. But I always loved science. And I honestly thought that I could help more people if became a researcher.

“I knew from an early age that it was a pebble in a pond situation. If I could develop the skills to be someone who could, first of all, identify a key component of cancer, and then develop a drug to fight it, I could help a lot of people, more than if I became a doctor.

“That was a young me, thinking quite naively, but I am still living the dream.”

Today, Dunn is founder and CEO of Richmond-based Phoenix Molecular Designs which is working on a novel way of targeting why cancer cells grow and spread in a bid to develop a drug that will stop their growth.

It has earned the small, five-employee firm in east Richmond a top-10 finalist spot in the Best Innovation category for the annual Small Business BC Awards, which will be handed out in Downtown Vancouver on Feb. 23.

After doing her training and residency in the U.S. and then spending 14 years as a professor at UBC, Dunn decided to enter the business world and Phoenix was incorporated in 2012. Three years later, she decided to take on the full-time role of CEO.

“I was really inspired to help,” she said, adding a good dose of that was derived through personal loss.

“I was good friends with Jasbinder Sanghera who built SignalChem, another Richmond-based molecular biology firm that assisted basic research and drug discovery. And Jasbinder told me that when I was ready to start my own company, ‘Come and see me and I’ll help you.’”

With that encouragement and coaching from Sanghera, Dunn decided to make the switch from academia and moved Phoenix in beside SignalChem, where they became virtual partners.

But the good working relationship took a sad turn when Sanghera, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer years earlier, became ill and passed away.

“He was terminally ill and I actually rushed to his bedside and missed him by just a few moments,” Dunn said, tearing up. “It’s hard to even talk about it now, two years later. But it made me motivated to try and help people with cancer, and feel that my life’s work in this area has been important.”

What makes the approach of Dunn’s company unique is the way it targets enzymes that help fuel cancer cell growth and promote their spread to different parts of the body.

The key, Dunn said, is finding the enzyme responsible for the growth of each cancer type and then blocking its activity. That way, treatment can be tailored to battle specific types of the disease. And the one Phoenix is targeting is an aggressive form called triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) that affects about 400,000 women globally each year.

“What we like about our particular drug target is that it’s revolutionary. No one else has produced an inhibitor like this,” Dunn said, adding much of the problem in battling TNBC rests with antiquated chemotherapy drugs that attack all cells in a body in a bid wipe out cancer along the way.

“That’s why your hair falls out and you throw up,” Dunn said, “whereas the type of inhibitor we’re working on does not have those properties. It’s only aimed at the cancer cells.”

Dunn described the process as essentially unplugging a cancer cell’s energy supply.

“And when their lights go off, they die,” she said. “And it doesn’t just slow down the cells, because if you do that, they are likely to come back. But if you can actively engage in killing the cells, then you can’t bring them back to life.”

Clinical trials for the drug are set to begin in 2018.

“The next year will be focused on further assessing the safety of the drug. So, 2018 is not that far off,” Dunn said.

Helping speed up the process for getting the drug to market is a shortened time for approving its use, thanks to its classification as an “orphan drug.”

That means the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will allow expedited clinical trials for a drug to treat a rare disease or condition. And that can mean a reduction from eight to five years in trial time.

“The idea is that when you have a high medical need, it’s recognized that you need to move quickly,” Dunn said. “It’s a global problem, let’s face it. Breast cancer is the number one cause of death in women worldwide. So, that in itself make us appreciate how important the work here is, on a local and global scale.”

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