The Engineer from University of Oxford started evaluating the possibility of building a company that provides end-to-end platform bringing data scientists, immunologists and immunotherapists, under a single roof and give them necessary tools to build vaccines to treat advanced stages of colon cancer.
For 48-year-old Roy de Souza, life was fantastic on both professional and personal fronts. Coming from a Goan family of doctors, that prized education, de Souza didn’t disappoint.
He attained a master's degree in Engineering from the University of Oxford and an MBA from Kellogg Business School. In 1999, he plunged into the world of startups and founded ZEDO, a digital advertising technology company in Silicon Valley.
ZEDO, which manages and runs digital ad campaigns for advertisers and helps publishers monetise their assets, has emerged as one of the world’s largest internet advertising technology firms.
Meanwhile, on the personal front, de Souza built a cosy home in Mumbai and lives with his wife and three children, and everything was smooth sailing until calamity struck.
One late evening in April 2017, while the couple were partying at a friend’s home in South Mumbai, his wife complained of severe stomach ache and was taken to the hospital. The doctor suspected kidney stones and ordered a CT scan.
"I spotted a shadow-like thing on the liver, but when I asked them, 'what is this?' They wouldn't tell me," de Souza told Moneycontrol.
De Souza's worst fears came true and his wife, who was in her 40s at the time, and felt perfectly healthy until a few days before the incident, was diagnosed with what is scientifically termed as metastatic colon cancer. In its advanced stage and aggressively spreading beyond the liver, the disease has a survival rate below 15 percent.
Fight against cancer
On the advice of a doctor friend, the de Souzas immediately flew to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to consult Dr Nancy E Kemeny, a medical oncologist who specialises in metastatic colon cancer that has spread to the liver.
Dr Kemeny is famous for pioneering the hepatic arterial infusion (HAI) pump - a way to pump high strength chemo directly into the liver and it has fantastic results.
Founded in 1884, the center is consistently ranked among the world’s best cancer hospital.
An appointment with Kemeny is not easy and the slots are filled months in advance. Add to that the fact that she only treats patients that fall within her specialisation of colon cancer which has spread to the liver.
Despite the challenges, de Souza's wife remained strong and composed. The perseverance paid-off and after days of effort, he was assured of an appointment with Dr Kemeny.
Keeping her word, Dr Kemeny began chemotherapy immediately and thankfully the patient responded well. For perspective, only 50 percent of patients with metastatic colon cancer respond to treatment.
But Roy didn't remain the same since then."you look at it, there is a big possibility that she is not going to be around.
I am going to be here with the kids on my own. And she is good with the children. I'm not so good. Children like to be with their mother, there is a bond and I don't think I can replace that," de Souza said with almost tears in his eyes.
Chemotherapy can prolong a patient's life by killing harmful cancer cells with a cocktail of toxic drugs, but it doesn’t cure cancer. De Souza thus made up his mind and decided to do whatever it takes to save his wife. That meant dedicating the rest of his life to find a cure for metastatic colon cancer.
He started with reading textbooks and research material on cancer. "I started thinking, well why can’t we kill (this cancer), we have the technology, we have drugs, these are living cells, we got to get something to go in there and kill the cells. And after about six months, I learnt that there was nothing available. That's when I started looking at other cancers, what worked to end other cancers? What is the latest thinking?" de Souza pondered.
While scouring for possible treatments that could cure his wife, de Souza stumbled across promising results of personalised vaccines in treating melanoma, a type of skin cancer.
New hope - personalised vaccines
According to research, our body's immune system acts as a natural defence against cancer, opening up the feasibility of using vaccines to treat the disease. But it isn’t as simple as it sounds.
For instance, much of the polio disease is caused by three types of poliovirus and it was relatively easy to come out with a vaccine covering the three strains.
However, in the case of cancer, where the cells mutate aggressively, designing and developing vaccines is a more daunting task. Add to that the fact that every tumour is unique in terms of composition of mutations, and only a small fraction was similar in patients.
This made it inevitable that the cure would have to be a personalised therapeutic vaccine or a vaccine custom-made for a particular person’s tumour.
Even as the efficacy and financial feasibility of a personalised vaccine are debated, the scientific and technological advances in genomics, data science, and cancer immunotherapy, have enabled instant mapping of the mutations within a genome, selection of vaccine targets, and on-demand production of therapy customised to a patient’s individual tumour.
De Souza started making calls to renowned cancer institutes to develop a vaccine for his wife’s cancer. Data scientists, immunologists and immunotherapists at five institutes -- the Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York; the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston; and the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, University of California San Diego and La Jolla Institute for Immunology were willing to help.
De Souza also found a partner with a brilliant scientist Devabhaktuni Srikrishna from California.
Using their generous advice and his technology experience, Roy was able to get a personalized vaccine designed for his wife."
After finishing the data analysis, de Souza finally moved to a big cancer research hospital in Germany, where the vaccine was manufactured and administered. This was done as US laws do not allow vaccines to be administered unless the drug is approved by the USFDA.
"In Germany, we paid to see the doctor and paid a company to manufacture the vaccine. We were not charged by the hospital, because it’s part of their research they do not charge for the actual vaccine. Fortunately, many people make donations to help them fund research," de Souza revealed.
His wife has so far received three vaccine shots -- one each in November and December 2018, and one in January 2019. De Souza said that his wife is now doing well. There is no growth of cancer so far, but she may need further vaccination in another six months.
The experience has moved de Souza and he is now determined to ensure that other patients do not have to repeat the entire process he underwent. Given his entrepreneurial bent of mind, he started evaluating the possibility of building a company that provides an end-to-end platform bringing data scientists, immunologists and immunotherapists, under a single roof and give them necessary tools to build those vaccines to treat advanced stages of colon cancer.
That idea led him to found BreakBio. He already has a renowned doctor on board and is now in the process of bringing the right people together to launch operations from Boston. Once everything is set, he plans to approach investors for funding.
But de Souza knows he is embarking on a difficult journey that would need him to wade through a maze of scientific and regulatory clearances, where millions of dollars of capital will be needed to come up with an effective treatment platform to save the lives of millions of people.(A few changes were made to the article to remove certain personal details in the interest of sensitivity to the individuals and topics mentioned in the story.)