Dr. Yogen Saunthararajah, a staff physician at Taussig Cancer Institute, has never shied away from treacherous paths and hazards that befall the world of innovation, especially in the cancer treatment arena. Dr. Yogen marches onward because of his unwavering conviction that there is a better way to treat cancer patients, and he knows the way to do it.
Dr. Yogen traces his interest in science to a little black-and-white TV his family owned in Singapore.
“I grew up watching Cosmos with Carl Sagan and Life on Earth with David Attenborough,” says Dr. Yogen. “Those guys convinced me that science was my calling and the place to pursue it was the United States”
He didn’t expect to be drawn to medicine, but somewhere along the way in his studies, he noticed there was an opportunity to apply his scientific mind to the pursuit of helping cancer patients.
“I am dismayed by the brutal methods we use to treat cancer,” says Dr. Yogen. “Frankly, much of it is not scientific. Most of what we do to is historic, and too often ineffective.”
Dr. Yogen set off to find a scientific, and therefore kinder and more effective, approach to treating cancer. Almost 20 years of his career has been devoted to learning how to make cancer stem cells resume their intended journey of becoming specialized, non-dividing cells. Based on this research, Dr. Yogen developed an Epigenetic Platform that has the potential to identify and eliminate the “road blocks” that prevent cancer cells from becoming specialized, non-dividing cells. Not only is this approach gentler and more effective, it holds the promise to impact more than just cancer patients. According to Dr. Yogen, the methodology can be applied to some of the most common and most debilitating genetic disorders in the world, including sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia.
Dr. Yogen’s research has been extensively published in the leading hematology and oncology specialty journals, an accomplishment he knows is just the beginning.
“The next phase is here. We have the science, so our next task is to develop the drugs to translate the science into the clinic,” says Dr. Yogen. “It is a tall task to create therapeutics that selectively interfere with very specific protein interactions within a cell, but it can be done. It’s now just a matter of time, resources and perseverance.”
Cleveland Clinic Innovations (CCI) is helping to lead the efforts to find funding for the Epigenetic Platform. Funding would go toward synthesizing the drugs, conducting clinical trials, and meeting the rigorous requirements of the FDA. CCI is also helping to navigate the dogmatic cancer industry that is, in many ways, built around the use of chemotherapy and radiation. But the combination of CCI’s connections and the powerful potential of the Epigenetic Platform, make this project entirely worthwhile, according to Santhosh Vadivelu, PhD, Sr. Director of the Therapeutics & Diagnostics Incubator at CCI.
“We know all too well that sometimes kinder, better solutions don’t always make it to market and into the clinic,” says Vadivelu. “But it’s only a matter of time before Dr. Yogen and the Epigenetic Platform completely change the cancer game. We want to be a part of that.”
After nearly two decades of work, many wouldn’t blame Dr. Yogen for backing off and devoting all of his time to practicing medicine or to a new science. Dr. Yogen, however, sees that as a contradiction.
“Patients remind me every day that we need to do better. The science shows that we can, and the larger team in Cleveland Clinic and our community tells me that we will. We will get there, but only together.”