Life and Death Can Be Strong Entrepreneurial Motivation

Published in UT San Diego, March 23, 2015

Rule No. 218 is “Grand passion will take you further than good grades,” and nothing focuses a passion more than when a problem is directly connected to your own life, as in living or dying.

Meet Laura Shawver. At the age of 49 in 2006, she was diagnosed with clear cell ovarian cancer. After getting the diagnosis, she was first surprised, then shocked and finally angry to learn that doctors had no idea what treatment to recommend for her particular case. This disease did not know who it was dealing with. Shawver was not your typical patient.

First, she has a Ph.D. in pharmacology, and second, she is relentless. She knew that a molecular profile of her tumor would help in determining the options, and she was upset that she could not easily get this done for ovarian cancer, even though it was being done regularly for patients with breast, lung and colon cancers.

After surgery, she underwent six rounds of chemotherapy while continuing to serve as chief executive officer of Phenomix, a San Diego biotech company that was raising $55 million in a financing. She scheduled her chemotherapy treatments around investor presentations. “I had chemotherapy every three weeks on a Wednesday, then I would take Thursday and Friday off, and go back to work on Monday. When we were in Boston and New York to pitch investors, my doctor would let me stay on steroids a day or so longer so that I wouldn’t crash,” Shawver said.

While dealing with her own situation, she decided to find a way to help others, so she started the Clearity Foundation, a nonprofit based in San Diego, in 2008 to help ovarian cancer patients and their physicians make better-informed treatment decisions based on the molecular profile of the tumor (the “tumor blueprint”). She chose the nonprofit route because she believed the number of new cases each year in the U.S. (about 22,000) weren’t enough to interest a pharmaceutical company in focusing on the disease.

Clearity’s goal is to help women find a more-individualized approach to therapy selection so they can live longer and healthier lives. The organization pays for the molecular profile of the tumor, recommends treatment options, maintains a database of patients and follows them so that over time it can provide better treatment recommendations. Even if Clearity cannot facilitate a molecular profile, they provide information about the disease, clinical trials and new drugs on the horizon.

“One of the barriers that we came up against is that physicians go through all the FDA-approved drugs, and only then do they think about a clinical trial or using a drug off-label. We need to shift that paradigm and bring a bolder, more creative approach,” she said.

So far, more than 450 ovarian cancer patients have turned to Clearity for help. One of them is North County resident Liz Laats, 45, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer five years ago. When she had a recurrence, she and her husband, Andy, went to see doctors all over the U.S.

“I could only get guesses from the medical establishment,” recalled Laats, who is the mother of three children between the ages of 7 and 11. “After you have the first line of therapy and a period of remission, it comes back. Recurrence is a real problem, and treating it is a guessing game.”

After registering on the Clearity Foundation website, Laats talked with one of the scientific advisers who explained more about her cancer and treatment options. “For the first time I felt that someone understood the situation that I was in, and that I wasn’t just throwing darts. Chemotherapy works for a little while, and then you have to find the next one. You buy time, and hopefully better therapies come along.”

As I’ve said, Shawver is relentless in her pursuit of a solution. After Phenomix closed up in 2010, she joined 5AM Ventures as an Entrepreneur in Residence and then became the CEO of Cleave Biosciences, based in Burlingame, driving their $54 million Series A financing. She is in the fortunate minority of ovarian cancer patients who have not suffered a recurrence.

She remains focused on growing Clearity’s capacity so it can handle its 1,000th patient in three years, and in educating doctors, patients and insurance firms about the importance of individualized treatment plans. “The most expensive drug is the one that doesn’t work,” she said.

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