In Las Vegas, where good luck is everyone’s dream, a chance meeting in 2013 put two men — one a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, the other a renowned physician and author — on a path that they hope will change medicine and save the lives of countless cancer patients.
The entrepreneur, Emmet Stephenson, was participating in a conference at the Bellagio for investors when he attended a talk by David B. Agus, MD, professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “I was there as an investor. Just by pure luck, I met David,” Stephenson recalled.
The bond they began to forge that day would eventually lead Stephenson, along with his wife, Toni and daughter Tessa, to pledge $10 million to further Agus’ pioneering efforts to change the way cancer is viewed and treated. Their gift will establish the Stephenson Family Personalized Medicine Center at the Center for Applied Molecular Medicine (CAMM) at the Keck School of Medicine.
Agus’ view that cancer treatments should be tailored to each individual has special meaning for the Stephenson family. Shortly before Emmet Stephenson met Agus, Toni Stephenson learned she had cancer.
Agus advised in developing her treatment regimen. His recommendation to try an experimental medicine specific to her condition proved crucial. “She’s in clinical trial No. 1 for her kind of cancer using this particular drug,” Emmet Stephenson said, noting that his wife’s cancer has been in remission for about 18 months. “And it’s terrific.”
The couple’s daughter, Tessa Stephenson Brand ’02, is a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and founder of Tessa Lyn Events, a Brentwood wedding and event planning company.
“When my mom was diagnosed with late-stage lymphoma, my dad put together a team of four doctors, including Dr. Agus, to act as an advisory board for my mom’s treatments,” she said. “He felt four minds were better than one, and these four people are all geniuses. We are happy to say that this team helped her.”
The Stephenson family’s unconventional way of dealing with Toni Stephenson’s cancer is exactly the sort of fresh thinking that Agus advocates.
“Diseases were categorized by body part in the 1800s, and we’ve categorized cancers by body part since then. Prostate. Breast. Lung. Whatever tissue they start in,” Agus explained. “I think what we’re learning now is that it’s not the tissue — it’s the pathway. It’s the context.
“Personalized medicine is really about bringing new technologies to bear to bring a whole new classification system for cancers.”
The idea of using technology to improve medical care makes a lot of sense to the Stephensons, who created Internet publishing firm Domain.com Inc., founded tech company StarTek and run Stephenson Ventures, a portfolio management and private equity firm.
Like her parents, Brand is dedicated to philanthropy and to making sure that her donations are meaningful. She is donating half of the $10 million because she believes that Agus’ ideas are worthy of her support.
“Dr. Agus is forward-thinking. He is thinking 100 years into the future. He plans to change the face of health care rather than solve a single problem,” she said. “He thinks bigger than most people, and he is the type of person we want to support.”
One focus of Agus and at CAMM is at the cellular level — the area immediately surrounding a malignancy known as the microenvironment.
“The microenvironment is certainly key,” said Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at the Keck School of Medicine and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and an author of two best-selling books on health. He also is a contributor to CBS News programs.
“If you drop a match in New York after it rains, nothing happens. If you drop a match in Los Angeles during wildfire season, it goes up in flames. So you need a receptive environment for cancer to happen.”
“There are over 400 kinds of cancer and over 7 billion people. That’s a lot of possible combinations for personalized medicine. The thing that we hope will come from this donation is that other people will step up and help us. It’s going to take a lot of resources, and it’s going to take a lot of smart people.”
— Emmet Stephenson
The Stephenson family gift is already being put to good use with the appointment of two new leaders: Laboratory Director Shannon Mumenthaler and Director of Analytics Dan Ruderman.
Mumenthaler, who has a bachelor’s in genetics from UC Davis and a PhD in cellular and molecular pathology from UCLA, is leading a team that will use advanced imaging approaches to dissect the complexities of the tumor microenvironment. The goal is to disrupt specific environmental factors to prevent disease progression and improve patient outcome.
Ruderman has a doctorate in theoretical physics from UC Berkeley and has done postdoctoral research at USC, Cambridge University and the Salk Institute. His team will generate and analyze large data sets to dissect the genomic complexities within and across cancer patients and dynamically track changes in mutations and cell signaling over short- and long-term scales to help guide clinical decision-making.
The work at CAMM benefits directly from the advanced technology in use at USC. “We’re very lucky in that we came to USC a few years ago, and they have one of the great supercomputing facilities in the country,” Agus said. “And our team is made up of physicists, mathematicians, engineers, biologists — all different disciplines who each look at data in a different fashion. Our goal is to create models for what’s happening to the cancer and what will happen. And those mathematical models can hopefully tell us which treatments to do — or not to do.”
The more information that a doctor has available, the better the decisions that will be made. But it is an immense undertaking.
“There are over 400 kinds of cancer and over 7 billion people. That’s a lot of possible combinations for personalized medicine,” said Emmet Stephenson, who isn’t inclined to shirk from a challenge.
“The thing that we hope will come from this donation is that other people will step up and help us,” he added. “It’s going to take a lot of resources, and it’s going to take a lot of smart people.”
One of those smart people is David Agus, who also knows that fortune was in his favor that day in Las Vegas when he first met Emmet Stephenson.
“We’re really privileged to work with them,” Agus said of the Stephenson family. “They are special people who want to help us build something that could change how we approach cancer.”
— Les Dunseith