Thesis Spotlight: Derek Athy

Author: Sean McGee

Photo of student Derek Athy

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Derek Athy from the ESTEEM program to learn more about his work on improving the treatment quality for breast cancer and colon cancer patients. Mr. Athy joined ESTEEM this last June, coming from a research coordinator position at the University of Chicago. Working with the research group of Steven Buechler, Ph.D., Sunil Badve, M.D., and Yesim Gökmen-Polar, Ph.D., Mr. Athy hopes to develop a strong foundation for this powerful technology to penetrate the market and bring better treatment to cancer patients nationwide.

  1. What are the problems surrounding your thesis project and how does your team plan on solving them?
Tens of thousands of cancer patients each year do not receive the treatment that is best for them. Many patients receive chemotherapy unnecessarily as the treatment does not provide any additional benefit, while others do not receive the chemotherapy that would benefit them. It’s estimated that 50% of breast cancer patients receive chemotherapy, while only 1 in 4 of these patients benefit from treatment. Treatment decisions are made between the patient and the cancer treatment team. Most decisions are based on patient health, preference, and clinical and pathological values such as tumor size/stage, spread to lymph nodes, and metastasis status of the cancer. While these factors are valuable, they only provide diagnostic information to a certain extent and do not take into account the genetic profile of the individual’s cancer.
 
In recent years, tests have been developed to guide treatment decisions based on the gene expression patterns in tumor samples. Some commercially available tests have gained traction in the early-stage breast cancer market, but these tests only identify about 50% of patients as being low-risk and able to avoid chemotherapy. Also, the market leading test, Oncotype DX by Genomic Health, has an intermediate group that provides no clear results that results in 22% of the patients. There is a need for a diagnostic test that can more accurately stratify patients into low- and high-risk groups, with no unclear intermediate group resulting.
 
Our research group, led by the inventors Steven Buechler, Ph.D., Sunil Badve, M.D., and Yesim Gökmen-Polar, Ph.D., has developed a test to determine the likelihood of relapse of breast cancer based on the measurement of expression levels of genes from tumor biopsy samples. The INDUCT scoring system measures the risk of distant metastasis in estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer patients based on the expression levels of 5 genes correlated to cancer relapse and proliferation; the resulting expression levels lead to a score that is used to guide individual patient treatment decisions. The INDUCT test identifies at least 68% of early-stage breast cancer patients as low-risk who are able to safely avoid chemotherapy treatments. The INDUCT test outperforms all tests currently used for guiding treatment decisions, and does not have an intermediate risk group. Patients are either stratified into a low-risk/good prognosis (68% of patients) or high-risk/poor prognosis (32% of patients).
 
The research group has also developed a test, the AP-colon test, which is able to stratify stage II and stage III colon cancer patients into low- and high-risk groups based off of the location of the tumor and the expression levels of 4 genes correlated to cancer relapse based on that location. This test can then be used to determine which stage II patients should receive chemotherapy from the start, instead of undergoing “observation” and waiting to see how/if the cancer progresses or returns. The AP 4 colon test can also be used to determine which stage III patients should and should not receive chemotherapy and potentially save thousands of stage III patients from receiving unnecessary treatments.
 
  1. How and why did you get involved in your particular project?
I have a background in research and development in various fields such as biofuel production, evolutionary biology, developmental biology, and clinical research in microbiome studies in the Department of Surgery at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and have developed a passion for R&D in the healthcare realm. I became familiar with my project upon meeting Gaylene Anderson, a Senior Innovations Officer at the University of Notre Dame as well as at the Cleveland Clinic. Upon meeting with her and Steven Buechler, Ph.D., to discuss the project, I knew that this was the project I wanted to get involved with as the inventor group, as well as the Office of Technology Transfer here on campus were very focused on the commercialization of the diagnostic tests the group has been developing in recent years. I have always been interested in research in the life sciences and healthcare, but often found myself asking “how will this actually have an impact on the world we live in today?” I chose this project to gain firsthand experience in developing the business model to bring products to market that has the potential to help millions of individual cancer patients in the future. From developing the business model canvas, working hand-in-hand with the inventors and commercialization officers, interviewing and developing relationships with leading oncologists, presenting to potential investors, and many other processes, each day is a learning experience that will truly benefit my future endeavors.
 

ESTEEM student Derek Athy stands in front of the Golden Dome

  1. What part do you play in your project outside of your academic work?

Another great experience I have through my thesis project is the group I work with for the McCloskey Business Plan Competition here at the University of Notre Dame. I have been teamed up with an MBA student, a M.S. Patent Law student, and a CPA student as we all work to further validate and develop the business model and hope to progress through the competition successfully. Each member of the team comes from a different background and has varying levels of the experience in the field, which only benefits the way in which we approach different potential avenues and pivots of our business plan.

  1. What has been your favorite part about your work?
From developing the business model canvas, working hand-in-hand with the inventors and commercialization officers, interviewing and developing relationships with leading oncologists, presenting to potential investors, and many other processes, each day is a learning experience that will truly benefit my future endeavors. I have already met some amazing people through this process such as a former president of ASCO, current ASCO members, CEOs and CMOs of hospital organizations, and other leading innovative officials in the healthcare industry. I have also been in discussion with experienced investment professionals and private equity groups, an area I am very interested in learning more about, especially concerning the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.