Into Fearless, Uncharted Territory: The Brain Cancer Expedition

This post was written by Max Wallace on behalf of the Case Foundation: 

We often say that Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure’s role is like that of Lewis and Clark — we go out into the wilderness, create new trails, and send back maps for others to follow. In our case, the wilderness is brain cancer. This year, our small expeditionary and experimental team will build the first model system that will enable a large number of patients to have their brain tumor fully profiled and then use that information to help them get the most state-of-the-art treatment for their exact tumors. We’re calling it the “Precision Medicine” project and we believe it’s a disruptive innovation that can revolutionize the field.

Today, 41 people in the U.S. will die from the most common form of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). This happened yesterday and, unless something changes, it will happen again tomorrow. Sadly, we are still using the same basic treatment tools and techniques that we have used for decades and, in spite of our best efforts over that time, the average life expectancy for a GBM patient is still about a year.

However, brain cancer research is about to change dramatically thanks to advances in technology, and it’s our moment to let urgency conquer fear. Genetic information and robotic and nano processes are intermingling and leading us into a new era of genomically-informed “precision” medicine. Our understanding of the genomic basis of cancer is increasing at an exponential rate. We now know that not all cancers are the same, even those which arise in the same organ. More and more people are being treated with new therapies targeted at changes specific to their individual tumor.

We are also beginning to understand that one type of cancer may use the same types of biochemical pathways as another type of cancer. This raises the possibility that a drug that works for one (e.g., melanoma) can be selected and quickly adapted for use against another with a similar molecular profile (e.g., GBM).

Not long ago, it cost tens of thousands of dollars to have a tumor profiled and you could only do it in a handful of academic laboratories. These technologies are being standardized and the cost of doing a tumor profile has now dropped to around $5,000 (and will continue to fall). Even at current levels, we can begin to integrate tumor profiling into regular brain cancer care.

Our “Precision Medicine” project will bring together researchers, clinicians and, most importantly, patients to take advantage of these new opportunities and help develop the most state-of-the- art personalized treatments. If the system works, we believe that we can transform research approaches and clinical practice. If we can do that, 12 months of survival might become two years, and two years might become four, and so on and so on. At that point, brain cancer will no longer seem like such an impenetrable wilderness.

Max Wallace is the CEO of Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, an initiative co-founded by Jean and Steve Case.

Fearless Focus: Max Wallace

In our journey to Be Fearless and champion a fearless approach to tackling social challenges, the Case Foundation team will spotlight leading changemakers across sectors that have embraced fearlessness. Our spotlights will provide personal accounts of why these changemakers adopted a fearless approach, how they overcame hurdles, and how taking risks, being bold, and failing forward led to quicker results and deeper impact. We spoke with Max Wallace, CEO of Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2), a nonprofit organization that uses entrepreneurial approaches to bring innovative new treatments to brain cancer patients. ABC2 was created in 2001, shortly after co-founder and Chairman of the Board Steve Case’s brother Dan Case was diagnosed with brain cancer. Dan, his wife Stacey, and Steve and Jean Case established ABC2’s singular focus to find a cure for brain cancer. ABC2 supports translational research in targeted therapies, drug delivery, cancer stem cells and using biomarkers for early detection and prognosis. The organization operates in honor of and in celebration of Dan, who passed in 2002. Max says “ABC2 is, in essence, a special operations team in the war against brain cancer.” Previous to joining ABC2, Max was an entrepreneur building research-driven biopharmaceutical companies.

You can watch Max’s answers to our questions in the video above, or share each segment individually:

What do you think it means to Be Fearless in approaching social challenges?
Of course I’d like to think we are fearless in our fight against brain cancer. Every day we fight an implacable, complex, dangerous disease for people whose lives are at stake. If fear is “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil or pain,” it is a daily part of our world. John Wayne described it:  “Courage is being scared to death … and saddling up anyway.” We saddle up every day and take as big and audacious a swing at brain cancer as we can. It may not be truly fearless – but it’s pretty darn close.

Tell us about a time when you and your organization were Fearless.
We worked witih Genentech to tackle risks and, in an unprecedented step, ABC2 provided funding for Genentech to do the required brain cancer studies. The result: in May 2009 the FDA granted accelerated approval for Avastin to be used to treat brain cancer – the first new brain cancer drug approved in over a decade. This pioneering project has set the tone for all that ABC2 has done since.

What did you learn & what advice would you give other organizations facing a similar decision point?
Steve Jobs said that he was trying to “make a dent in the universe” and we agree with that approach. Trying to dent the universe is risky business and we often operate in unmapped territory (in fact, our job is to send back maps). We know there will be failures, but that is not a reason to hold back. And, if we do fail we want our failure to be both fast and forward.

What inspired your organization to Be Fearless?
In 2001, Dan Case was 43 and on top of the world. Then Dan was diagnosed with brain cancer. Counseled by many to focus just on his own life, Dan chose to take a different path and ABC2 was born. While Dan did not survive his cancer, every day we work to be as caring and courageous as he was.

Learn more about Max Wallace here. Read more about Be Fearless campaign. Know someone that we should spotlight for Fearless Focus? Let us know here in the comments or tell us on twitter @casefoundation using #befearless.