Early Detection is Best — No matter what, the treatment process is brutal, which is why it’s always best to catch it early on. Take advantage of the screening methods that exist for certain cancers, especially if it runs in your family. Women: don’t miss your mammograms and get your pap smears. Men: make sure you get your PSA exams once you’re over 50 and do your colonoscopies, etc. If you can catch it early, the outcome is better.
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 Amit Kumar.
Dr. Kumar has been an investor, founder, director and CEO of several technology enterprises, both public and private. As CEO, he took CombiMatrix Corporation public and ran it for a decade while listed on the NASDAQ Global Market. He has worked in venture capital with OAK Investment Partners, and has been an advisor to investment funds, venture capital firms, and Fortune 500 companies. He was on the Board of Directors of Acacia Research Corporation from 2002–2008. Dr. Kumar is currently Chairman and CEO of Anixa Biosciences and he sits on the Board of other public and private companies. He has served on the Board of the American Cancer Society since 2016. He received his AB in Chemistry from Occidental College. After graduate studies at Stanford University and Caltech, he received his Ph.D. from Caltech and followed that with a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard.
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?
Absolutely! I was born in India, came to the United States when I was seven years old, and have been educated in the U.S. in various parts of the country. I’ve always been interested in research ever since I was a kid, and the healthcare field was just something towards which I gravitated as I got a little bit older. But, I am also interested in many other areas, for example, material science, making solar cells and batteries, and various other things. However, healthcare is where I’m primarily focused.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
When I was very young, my grandfather instilled in me interest in knowledge and research, and he always felt that I would be well-served as a scientist. So, I would say it was definitely my grandfather’s encouragement, coupled with my interest in science and research, that brought me to where I am today.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
We have the opportunity to impact many, many people with some of our research, so I would say this is what gets me out of bed in the morning — the fact that I, along with a large team, am able to make a long-lasting impact on the world and change as well as save lives with our work.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
We are working on a lot of game-changing projects. Perhaps the most interesting project, which happens to be on that is getting a lot of media attention, is a prophylactic breast cancer vaccine. This vaccine is focused initially on preventing the most lethal form of breast cancer, known as triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). However, as we expand our clinical trials, and if they continue to provide great data, we may have a vaccine that could completely change how research is done for cancer and save millions of women’s lives. This vaccine has been in laboratory or pre-clinical development for two decades at the Cleveland Clinic. I and my company partnered with the Cleveland Clinic in 2019 to take this vaccine into human testing, which began in late 2021. The clinical trial in humans is in the early stages but the data so far looks very promising. As of August 2023, we have tested the vaccine on 15 women, and I will make a very bold statement here. Should our data with a larger number of TNBC patients read out well, and if we are able to test this vaccine on other forms of breast cancer, we may be able to largely eliminate breast cancer as a disease, kind of like we’ve eliminated polio and other infectious diseases. And it wouldn’t only save millions of people’s lives, but it would impact all their family members as well. For example, I have two daughters, and I would love to be able to give them a shot and know that they’re never going to have to worry about getting breast cancer.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority on the topic of cancer?
Well, I’ve been educated at some of the top institutes in the country, including Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology, and Harvard University. Those experiences enable me to perform world class research. I’ve also worked in Biotech and Cancer Research for over 30 years. In addition, I was a member of the National Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society for six years, until I termed out. As you may know, the American Cancer Society is the largest non-profit organization addressing cancer, and one of the most influential. However, I’m not a clinician, meaning I don’t treat patients directly; rather, focus on research and new potentially revolutionary medicines..
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?
The general definition of cancer is the uninhibited growth of cells. All our cells have a certain life cycle, and eventually, they die and are cleaned out by our bodies. But when cancer arises, those cells are growing and growing. Cancer starts off with a few cells or even one single cell that becomes aberrant, and then those cells eventually become a multi-billion cell mass. As the cancer cells grow, this is when people usually start feeling symptoms or see it in an image, such as a mammogram.
What causes cancer?
There are a lot of factors that cause cancer. One of them genetic, and we’ve discovered some of those genetic factors. For example, we have identified some specific genetic mutations that predispose women to get breast cancer and some men, by the way. However, we haven’t discovered all of the genetic factors for either breast cancer or other cancers, but we know that they exist, and we’re looking for them. Other factors include things like your lifestyle and environment. Melanoma, as an example, is well-known to be directly related to a lot of sunlight and so forth. So although we don’t know everything about causation, we know a few things and will continue to learn more.
What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?
Well, cancers can arise in different types of cells in the body. They can also arise in different organs in the body, but the important thing to note is that cancer is a multitude of different diseases. Even cancers within the same organ system can be different. So, you can classify cancer as hundreds or even thousands of different diseases.
I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?
Well, prevention is a really good approach to addressing cancer or any disease, because even though our cancer therapy and care have gotten better and many people are surviving cancer today (who wouldn’t have survived 20 years ago), the process of treating cancer is brutal. It involves a lot of very, very difficult medicines, surgeries, and other things that are not fun. So, prevention is key, and there are a few simple things that we can do to prevent many cancers. For one, leading a healthy lifestyle, which includes a good diet, getting enough exercise, and resting often. But also things like quitting smoking. If we could magically get everyone in the U.S. to stop smoking today, we could cut our cancer deaths by almost half.
How can one detect the main forms of cancer?
We use several techniques to detect certain cancers, but we don’t necessarily have early detection methods for every kind of cancer. Self exams and mammograms for breast cancer, Pap smears for cervical cancer, PSA for prostate cancer, which in all honesty, aren’t always very good detection methods, but they’re there. Unfortunately, we really don’t have a lot of techniques that we can use to detect cancer within many internal organs. So, I always recommend that when you feel something, you should go check it out — you know your body better than any doctor ever will. One of the most common ways of verifying that you have cancer are biopsies, which are done if either an imaging study or symptoms warrant. For blood cancers, blood tests and detailed cellular analyses can be done. If you can find cancer early, your chances of surviving are significantly better than if you can only identify it in its later stages.
Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?
That’s right, cancer used to be a death sentence, and a lot of people sometimes even think now that it’s a death sentence, but it’s not. We’ve developed lots of therapies and supportive care, and our technology is evolving every year. As a result, our surgeries and treatments are better. Many people survive cancer now, and although they’re always worried about recurrence, they can survive it. In fact, there are 3.8 million women in the U.S. who are breast cancer survivors. Other types of cancers, which are very hard to catch early, like pancreatic or even ovarian cancer, tend to have poor outcomes. The ideal situation is to catch it as early as possible. Statistics for various types of cancers, like lung and colon cancer, show that if you catch it early, the chances of survival are close to 60/70/80%. But, if it’s later, the survival rates go down to, even single digits — 10% or less. So, the earlier, the better.
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?
Well, I think the most exciting things from a scientific and medical standpoint are what are known as targeted therapies and even more important are immunotherapies. Targeted therapies, instead of trying to kill all the cells like traditional chemotherapy does, targets only the cancer cells and tries to avoid healthy cells as much as possible. So, one of the problems with traditional chemotherapy is it kills the cancer cells, but it also kills a lot of healthy cells resulting in many side effects. Also, often its hard for patients to tolerate chemotherapies. Many people can’t even complete the full course of a chemotherapy. The most promising technology that has developed recently is immunotherapy. If I’m being honest, immunotherapy is also brutal (no therapy for cancer will be easy), but this type of therapy will boost the ability of your immune system to destroy the cancer cells on its own. These therapies do not try to destroy the cancer cells directly. They try to enhance the ability of your own immune system to destroy the cancer through different techniques to boost the strength of your immune system or specific components of the immune system. We’ve already learned a lot about how the immune system works, and we’re still in the early stages, but over the next 10–20 years, it’ll be fantastic. And then, of course, our breast cancer vaccine that I previously mentioned does exactly that — it teaches the immune system to destroy the cancer cells as they arise. Killing the cells at the 2–4–8 cell stage so that the cancer never even has a chance to grow and become a tumor or spread to other parts of the body. Ultimately, I think immunotherapy is going to be revolutionary over the coming decades.
From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?
Great question. As we know, cancer is one of those diseases that affects not only the patient but everyone in that patient’s orbit. So, support is incredibly important for both the patient and the caregivers as well. I think one of the things that I would recommend is providing not only the physical care that they may need but also mental care. You know, taking them to concerts or out to dinner and things like that are all incredibly important. In other words, keeping their attitude up. We do know that the ability to battle that disease is impacted by your attitude. If you’re positive and in a good place, it helps. So absolutely trying to maintain that level of mental health is just as important as the physical aspects of care.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
Some people seem to think that cancer can’t be fought with a vaccine. However, that’s simply not true. If people could put aside their political views and personal opinions and realize that we’ve been working towards this for decades (and that when it’s available, they should go get it), we’d all be better off. Of course, something like our breast cancer vaccine needs to go through rigorous testing, which is currently in the works, but after all of that is completed, I would say go get vaccinated. I’ll also mention that we’re not just working on a breast cancer vaccine but also an ovarian cancer vaccine, although this one is still in the early stages of development.
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?
1. Early Detection is Best — No matter what, the treatment process is brutal, which is why it’s always best to catch it early on. Take advantage of the screening methods that exist for certain cancers, especially if it runs in your family. Women: don’t miss your mammograms and get your pap smears. Men: make sure you get your PSA exams once you’re over 50 and do your colonoscopies, etc. If you can catch it early, the outcome is better.
2. Cancer is Not a Death Sentence — I honestly cannot say this enough — cancer is not a death sentence! When you get diagnosed with cancer, don’t immediately go home and think, ‘I’m going to go away.’ Advancements in medical science mean that each day we’re getting better at treating and eliminating cancer; just look at the breast cancer vaccine we’ve been developing for over 20 years.
3. It’s a Physical AND Mental Battle — We mentioned this a bit above, but fighting cancer is both a physical and mental battle. Having a strong support system and a positive mindset can make all the difference between a positive and a negative outcome. Yes, we’re constantly developing new therapies that we didn’t previously have, but our patients also need to be mentally committed to fighting the disease; otherwise, we’re fighting a losing battle.
4. Prevention is Key — Although we’re getting better at identifying and treating cancer, the best way to avoid getting cancer is to actively work to prevent it in the first place. Yes, sometimes it’s unavoidable (like if you’re genetically predisposed), but environmental factors are more important than many people realize. So, next time your doctor recommends adopting a healthier lifestyle, just know that that can also affect your chances of preventing cancer. And don’t smoke.
5. Treatments are Ever Evolving — Finally, our technology, research, and ability to treat cancer patients is ever evolving. Personally, I’ve seen massive changes throughout my 30-year career, even just in the ability to understand our immune system and how it works. I believe diving deeper into the immune system will be the key element that we need to work towards eliminating cancer entirely, which is why I’ve dedicated years of my career to developing something like this breast cancer vaccine.
This is an item six, but its also important: Look for clinical trials. If everything fails, be aware that there are lots of clinical trials trying to develop new therapies. Sometimes, its hard to get into those for different reasons, but be your own advocate and talk to your medical team, as well as look for yourselves, Also, those of us who are trying to develop the next great breakthrough in cancer care, are always seeking suitable patients, to save your life as well as future patients.
When a great breakthrough is achieved, its often the scientists and doctors that get the credit, but its really the patients who should get the credit. They are the ones who let us test that breakthrough therapy on their bodies.
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. 🙂
Well, my pipe dream is that smoking would be eliminated entirely — that would make a bigger dent than all of the cancer advances we’ve seen in the past 30 years. However, more realistically, we need to continue researching how our bodies work, analyzing their immune systems, and using that information to create new treatments and medicines. As you can see, I’m a big proponent of research, and research takes money. So, if the U.S. government as well as other governments could put more resources into research, it would serve the world well.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.