Skip to content

The fight against cancer, one fruit fly at a time

Ross Cagan is attempting to change the mindset when it comes to treating cancer. Rather than go the route of attacking tumors with targeted therapy, the pioneering researcher and his colleagues at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York are taking an innovative approach to making treatment more personalized—one that involves an unlikely test subject.

“(Targeted therapy) is not really personalized medicine. It’s more genomics by voting,” Cagan said Thursday afternoon at Northeastern as the keynote speaker at the Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series.

Cagan is the director of the hospital’s Center for Personalized Medicine and a professor of development and regenerative biology, oncological sciences, and ophthalmology. His approach to a more personalized form of cancer treatment: it starts with the Drosophila melanogaster, or what is commonly known as the fruit fly.

Their approach involves creating a genetic copy of a patient’s tumor in a fly and then testing thousands of drugs to see if any of them—either alone or in combinations—eradicates the tumor without killing the fly. The next step: to administer the successful drug cocktail to the human patient.

The Center for Personalized Medicine opened its doors on Sept. 1, Cagan said, and focuses on three specific types of cancer: medullary thyroid cancer, colorectal cancer, and triple negative breast cancer. They are just beginning to treat patients and have set a goal to get 50 patients for each type of cancer.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun and pioneering cancer researcher Ross Cagan discuss Cagan's work on Thursday at the Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series event. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun and pioneering cancer researcher Ross Cagan discuss Cagan’s work on Thursday at the Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series event. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Cagan described his work to more than 100 students, faculty, and staff in a standing-room-only Raytheon Amphitheater, as many others watched online. It was the first Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speakers Series event of the fall semester.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun hosts the series, which is designed to bring the world’s most creative minds to campus for conversations on innovation and entrepreneurship. Previous speakers include Nobel laureate Sir Harold Kroto, cell biologist Jeanne Lawrence, global business strategist Vijay Govindarajan, and IBM Watson creator David Ferrucci.

Following his talk, Cagan discussed his work and its implications with Aoun and fielded questions from the audience. He was asked multiple questions about funding avenues for his innovative work, including one from Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, who inquired about the impact of philanthropy.

“Very often the people giving through philanthropy got where they are because they took risks,” Cagan responded. “They like it when I say, ‘This is risky and it might not work.’”

Cagan went on to say he believes federal research funding should be awarded based on the researcher’s reputation, rather than the project itself. “You should bet on the jockey, not on the horse,” Cagan said. “Make it performance dependent and not on how well a researcher can tell a story (in a grant proposal).”

Ross Cagan spoke to more than 100 members of the Northeastern community on Thursday. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Ross Cagan spoke to more than 100 members of the Northeastern community on Thursday. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Aoun asked Cagan to elaborate on a company he co-founded called Medros Inc., which screens drugs for effectiveness against cancer and diabetes. He said he started the company as a means of accelerating the process to get his lab’s successful drug cocktails out to the public.

Cagan used this story to offer advice to young researchers, including those in the audience. “I’m all about new generation biologists learning how to take risks,” he said. “There is a huge world out there if you are willing to take your own risk and start a small company.”

Prior to his research career, Cagan was a musician, and he was asked how he has applied the artistic process to his work in science. He explained that in both fields, it’s beneficial to master certain activities—such as playing an instrument or performing an experiment—in order to free your mind to think and spend less time thinking about completing the activity itself.

“If you can get that under some rigor, then you free yourself to think about things like why you are doing this,” Cagan said.