By: Jason Lee
David Bearss doesn’t remember his grandfather.
The family patriarch was in his 40s when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1969 — the year Bearss was born. He died before Bearss was old enough to know him.
“I have pictures of him holding me as a baby,” Bearss said. “But with cancer in those days, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do for him.”
Years later, cancer struck the family again when Bearss’ mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and died in her early 60s, he said.
“Cancer has been something that’s hung over my family for years,” said Bearss, 47. “It’s had a huge impact in my life on people that I love that were taken away because of cancer.”
Those losses motivated Bearss to pursue a career in scientific research in an effort to help others who might otherwise befall the same fate as his mother and grandfather.
Today, Bearss is chief executive officer of Lehi-based biotech firm Tolero Pharmaceuticals, whose team of scientists is conducting clinical trials on a drug that has shown promise in treating acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.
According to the American Cancer Society, AML is a blood disease that starts in the bone marrow and in most cases quickly moves into the blood and sometimes can spread to other parts of the body.
There have been few new therapies for acute myeloid leukemia over the years, Bearss said, and his company’s research has been able to identify cells that can target specific markers of AML.
“We’re trying to treat cells at a cellular and molecular level,” he said.
The company’s lead drug candidate, alvocidib, is in midstage development. It can be considered the “treatment of last resort” to help AML patients when other treatments fail, Bearss said.
Tolero was acquired by Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, a large Japanese pharmaceutical company, in December 2016.
Scientists at Tolero discovered in its clinical trials that their drug appears to be effective in patients with AML.
“What is does is targets a pathway that cancers use to survive,” explained Bearss, who holds a doctorate in cell and structural biology from the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio and a bachelor’s degree from BYU.
“Our body has ways to get rid of things that are going wrong. One of the things that cancer cells have figured out is how to not die. Cancer cells have an inherent ability to (survive),” he said.
Researchers are working to determine the specific pathway AML cells are taking in the body so they can develop a treatment that will target that specific pathway and help patients with that particular biomarker cell in their individual cancer profile, Bearss said.
Alvocidib is currently being investigated in the second stage of a clinical study for AML patients with a specific biomarker in the U.S., and a new drug application is expected to be submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next year, he explained.
Currently, survival rates for AML patients are about 25 percent over five years, Bearss said. He’s hoping the company’s team of scientists can increase that rate significantly with their targeted cell approach.
“We call this precision medicine,” Bearss said, adding that he can tell patients, “This drug doesn’t work for everybody, but it works for you.”
While there is still another full third stage to go, if all goes well, Bearss said the AML treatment could be available in two or three years.
“It takes awhile to really prove and show that it does what we think it does,” he said.
Oncologists have faced challenges in treating this notoriously difficult blood cancer.
Daanish Hoda, attending physician at the Intermountain Blood and Marrow Transplant/Acute Leukemia Program, said the studies thus far with alvocidib have been encouraging.
“Cancer care is moving toward precision medicine,” Hoda explained.
The early phase studies so far have looked very promising, he noted, but there is still further study needed.
“It’s great that we have (Utah) companies that are doing trials like this,” Hada said. “Hopefully more will come.”