Rutgers alumna launches start-up to improve cancer treatment

<p>The nonprofit hopes to win the prize of more than $1 million.&nbsp;</p>

The nonprofit hopes to win the prize of more than $1 million. 

A Rutgers alumna, who is the founder of a nonprofit geared toward fighting cancer using artificial intelligence (AI), was announced as a finalist in a competition for more than $1 million in prizes.

“I started Cures Within Reach for Cancer, which is an independent business unit of Cures Within Reach, to specifically repurpose treatments for cancer and we do research and development,” said Laura Kleiman, founder and executive director of Cures Within Reach for Cancer and Rutgers alumna from the Class of 2004.

Other pharmaceutical companies knew that existing U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs could be repurposed to treat cancer directly, but because they are not profitable there is no incentive to pursue them, Kleiman said.

Cures Within Reach for Cancer plays the role of a bridge between these discoveries and getting those treatments into the standard of care for cancer, she said.

“Most people would say that gathering the evidence is the hard part but that’s not the end goal and actually getting physicians to be aware of the evidence and getting payers like insurance companies to reimburse for the treatments is nontrivial,” Kleiman said.

One way Cures Within Reach for Cancer raises awareness to get people to use its findings is it partners with value-based healthcare organizations like healthcare systems, she said.

Cures Within Reach for Cancer joined Cures Within Reach as a fiscal sponsor in 2017, which enabled it to receive tax-deductible donations as well as receive help with administration of the nonprofit.

Kleiman left her job as a scientific research director of the cBio Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute a few months before starting the MassChallenge, a startup accelerator program, in June, she said.

“I’ve been really excited about MassChallenge because they see the value in nonprofits and what they can bring to society as well as for-profits,” Kleiman said.

MassChallenge is a four-month program where approximately 100 participants go through judging, ending on Oct. 24. Cures Within Reach for Cancer was selected as one of the top 20 startups to participate in the final judging round and is eligible for the more than a $1 million prize, according to a MassChallenge announcement.

“One of our MassChallenge mentors is phenomenal, she had a 30-plus-year career in marketing strategy and she’s also a 21-year cancer survivor and she has basically become an integral member of our team. She works with us in so many different areas and has really helped us move a lot of projects forward,” Kleiman said. 

Cures Within Reach for Cancer has a variety of partners. One such partner is IBM Research’s Science for Social Good program, where it collaborates to develop machine learning models to find, extract and synthesize evidence on repurposed drugs.

There are approximately 20,000 published studies testing repurposed drugs for cancer to date. Cures Within Reach for Cancer is trying to build an engine that can find relevant evidence, extract information of interest and synthesize the information from different studies, Kleiman said.

“We need AI and machine learning to accelerate those processes that I just described, because doing that manually could take 100 years because there is so much evidence and it takes so long to review all of that manually,” she said.

Members of the organization want to make sure they are confident in what repurposed therapies and therapy combinations are most likely to have a large patient impact, Kleiman said. There are hundreds of opportunities and when you consider combinations of therapies, and it gets very complex.

Rutgers is where Kleiman started thinking about how interdisciplinary sciences can be used in the cancer fight. She was already thinking about how computational approaches could be used to better understand cancer before starting her organization, and did research building mathematical models to understand cancer progression.

Kleiman has had many family members affected by cancer and lost her mom to cancer. She realized the opportunity to accelerate the repurposing of drugs using AI and was motivated to accelerate the process.

“It has been basically just me for years building up this idea the vision. I’ve had a lot of support from advisors and 1 or 2 volunteers over the years, but basically it was just me honestly dreaming — dreaming of how we could do better by cancer patients. And then since June we have grown to more than 30 team members. It’s been really incredible,” she said.

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