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Science Exchange Stories: Shawn Carbonell, Brain Surgery Dropout

Shawn Carbonell at his small lab space in San Francisco. Photo from Jackson Solway's Startup Portrait.
Shawn Carbonell at his small lab space in San Francisco. Photo from Jackson Solway’s Startup Portrait.

Have you ever had a big idea that burned a hole in your brain? Plagued you day after day? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Shawn Carbonell, the CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of OncoSynergy.

Although he had spent the last 18 years prepping for a career as an academic neurosurgeon, he couldn’t stop thinking about an idea he had that could help fight cancer.  He had many options available to him, but he risked it all because he wanted to get a drug to the clinic in the quickest way possible.

I talked with Shawn a few weeks ago, I was impressed not only with the passion he has embodied to develop his cancer therapies, but also the speed at which he has done so (P.S. I’ve visited Shawn’s lab in San Francisco, and can say, hands-down, it is the most efficient lab I’ve ever visited).

Q: What is the mission of OncoSynergy? 

A: We are addressing unmet needs in cancer to improve patient outcomes. Our approach is unique; we are trying to develop “Aspirins” for cancer. By that we mean drugs with multiple mechanisms of action that can be used for different types of cancer and at different stages – either alone or in combination with other drugs. We call them platform drugs. We have two such drugs in our pipeline currently.

Q: How did you find this niche, how did you learn it was effective?

A: Like many things in science it was a serendipitous thing that came out of research that I was already working on. So, it started with a particular molecule I was working on in my first post-doc that I thought would have great promise in malignant brain tumors. That’s where I first tested the idea, but I came to realize that there was a lot of evidence that it could work in many other cancers including metastatic cancers.

The resulting drug, a first-in-class monoclonal antibody called OS2966, has shown preclinical efficacy in multitherapy resistant brain cancer, gemcitabine resistant pancreatic cancer, triple negative breast cancer and others. So, it’s turning into a really nice platform, and one that is effective against the most aggressive cancers.

Q: Did you have several routes you were considering?  What were your options? 

A: I had a lot of options, actually too many. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it took three years before I got to this point. You have to understand that my goal since undergrad was to become an academic neurosurgeon. After I got my MD and PhD through the University of Virginia Medical Scientist Training Program, I decided to defer my residency to become even nerdier and do an international post-doc. at the University of Oxford. That went really well. They wanted me to stay on for a faculty position and I could have developed it there, but I wasn’t ready to give up my clinical ambitions. So, I started my neurosurgery residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The chairman is a big dude in brain cancer and he was just about to hand me my own lab with start up funding. However, I started questioning why I was going to spend all this time, 7 additional years at this point, becoming a neurosurgeon, when I had this big idea that’s ready to go.

That idea burned a hole in my brain; I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Despite 100+ hour work-weeks, I’d be online in the call room at 4 am hashing out the idea rather than getting critical sleep. Fairly abruptly, I decided to give up the entire clinical side, so I could push this to the clinic somehow. I quit my residency, moved up to San Francisco, and began further studies at UCSF as a post-doc in the Brain Tumor Research Center.

Within 6 months I demonstrated proof of concept, patented the idea and things have been moving along since then. I started at UCSF in 2010 and we incorporated in May 2011. Today, we have 5 employees and a European subsidiary. We’ve been very lucky so far.

Q: How are you using Science Exchange?

A: I’m using it a lot more than I thought I would. We are mostly virtual, a lot of the heavy lifting gets done by larger private CRO’S, but there are things here and there where Science Exchange really fills the need – especially on the discovery side and those time consuming projects like histology.

In England, I used to spend weeks in front of a cryostat or microtome cutting tissue for my studies. In fact, I had to hire a technician to help me. Now we mail the tissues out and get beautifully cut, mounted, and processed histology slides FedEx’d to us in about a week. We can even get them imaged, but that is one of my favorite tasks, so we’ll see how it goes.

In the past few weeks it’s been a flurry of projects to help us meet a milestone deadline, because we don’t have enough time or manpower to finish it ourselves.  A facility at Washington University helped us with specimen prep and histology, and we got some angiogenesis assays done at Indiana University also. A “boutique” CRO is replicating our Westerns in parallel with our own lab. It’s been working out very well.

Q: So, is the ultimate goal of OncoSyergy to create a unique therapy?

A: Yes, our therapies are unique because they feature multiple mechanisms of action for greater effectiveness. Of course, the ultimate goal is to get our drugs into clinic, but at the heart we are trying to address unmet needs. We are particularly focused on orphan cancers – the ones that get neglected by the bigger guys, typically because they don’t have a big enough market. So, we are deliberately going after the worst of the worst and the ones that don’t get enough attention. We also have a promising program in another neglected proliferative disease, neurofibromatosis.

Q: What advantage does a startup have versus a large drug company?

A: There are a few. We can move pretty fast, there’s no bureaucracy. There are no meetings about meetings. We can pivot on a dime, and we have done that in the past.

We can be heretical and take risks. I feel that’s the only way you are going to truly have a significant impact on patient outcomes. Again, we can attack the unmet needs that seem less interesting to the big guys. We’ve met with a couple of them recently and one confirmed they wouldn’t be interested in our drugs if our chosen lead indications were brain or pancreatic cancers because their marketing people would have a cow. It’s an important lesson to balance the science and business side of things. I suppose that balance depends on your size and mission.

My goal has always been to dramatically advance medicine. Although I miss seeing patients and operating, I have no doubt I can do that best doing what I’m doing now.

Browse any of Science Exchange’s 2000+ experiments here.


Tess Mayall


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