Some kinds of scientific projects — well, they’re very similar to business startups: they take a different view, they test new ideas. That’s how Kevin Harrang thinks about it. And what is Harrang’s scientific startup of choice? Precision medicine, or medicine tailored to each individual patient.
“You can look at it the same way you would look at a startup and say, wow, I want to invest in that,” says Harrang. “The applicability is vast, and breakthroughs will yield tremendous benefits.”
Harrang would know. Diagnosed at age 51 with multiple myeloma, the former in-house counsel for Microsoft and present-day legal tech entrepreneur was treated with intense chemotherapy, radiation therapy and two rounds of stem cell transplantations. Finally, he received maintenance chemotherapy through a research study conducted by UW Medicine faculty member Pamela Becker, M.D., Ph.D.
Becker’s research is where Harrang and his wife, Ann, have decided to invest.
Each person responds differently to cancer-fighting drugs, even patients with the same type and stage of cancer. Or, put another way: in cancer treatment, one size does not fit all. This complexity and variation is the inspiration for Becker’s work, which utilizes state-of-the-art technology at UW Medicine’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine. In order to create tailored treatments for patients like Harrang, she and her team take a cancerous sample from the patient and test it for mutations in 194 genes. The cells are analyzed for the expression of 17,000 genes. Then the sample is bombarded with 150 drugs and drug combinations to see which therapy will work best for that patient.
“We needed a drastic change to find new therapies for patients who had already received all of the approved treatments,” says Becker. “This comprehensive precision medicine approach gives everyone a chance and provides hope for the future.”
Precision medicine has definitely given the Harrangs a great deal of hope, and, as Harrang’s health stabilized, the couple began thinking about giving back. The late Bard Richmond, a friend and fellow patient with a background in startup investment, encouraged Harrang’s interest in precision medicine. In appreciation of Becker’s care, and in tribute to Richmond, the Harrangs made a generous gift to support Becker’s research.
“Kevin’s and Ann’s gift will enable us to expand our new clinical trial for multiple myeloma, where we are testing cell-free DNA for 70 gene mutations and testing the patient’s cells against a custom panel of 175 drugs,” says Becker. She hopes this method, which the Harrangs are helping develop, could be applied to chronic myelogenous leukemia, lymphoma, lung cancer and other diseases, as these latter studies are already in progress.
“Philanthropy has made all of our cutting-edge developmental work possible,” says Becker. And Harrang wants to make something very clear about his family’s philanthropy.
“I encountered Dr. Becker’s research through our physician-patient relationship, but I’m not just motivated to support it because it happens to be my condition,” Harrang says. “I think this has a much broader appeal — it could help a great number of patients in many areas.
“Getting in on the ground floor of a pioneering medical breakthrough,” he says, “is very exciting.”