President and Chief Scientific Officer
Caris Life Sciences
While many life sciences practitioners are passionate about advancing healthcare and helping patients reach optimal health outcomes, others are fiercely passionate. And relentless. David Spetzler, MS, MBA, PhD, is both.
David is the President and Chief Scientific Officer of Caris Life Sciences®, a leading innovator in molecular science that is reaching for the brass ring in personalized cancer treatment. He is a bioscience innovator with 330 patent applications across 37 different patent families and the author of 31 peer-reviewed journal articles. The pursuit of genomics research and its applications for precision medicine is deeply personal to the researcher, who grew up in a family of medical practitioners and was already working in a molecular neurobiology lab at age 14.
“I’ve always been fascinated by science, though I pursued other interests in college,” says David. He briefly pursued art and philosophy, but in the end entered academia. Yet his career path changed abruptly when his oldest daughter, now 15, was born with a significant genetic abnormality resulting in severe special needs. “A lovely, happy child,” he says, “she pushed me to understand how I could best support her and support my wife in caring for her. I wanted to participate in the development of science that could help improve her situation.”
That intense desire led David to molecular biology and, eventually, to Caris Life Sciences, where he helps develop proprietary advanced technologies to fulfill the promise of personalized treatment for those with cancer. How would that work? David explains, “We now understand at the molecular level what is happening in our bodies, and that starts with cells.”
As an analogy, he equates a cell to a city, comprised of roads, buildings, and infrastructure that make it work. “We’re able to measure different types of molecules within a cell to understand what is happening. The easiest to measure—DNA—is like the ‘architectural blueprint’ of a cell. Next Generation Sequencing technology provides a more granular look at a cell that allows us to analyze the whole genome,” he explains. “And with cancer, we want to look more deeply at RNA and proteins. These indicate which cellular activities are turned on or off and how the cell is functioning.”
Targeting Personalized Therapies
Most significantly, David says, “By understanding protein complexes, we have the ability to understand why a patient’s cancer has evolved in the way that it has, and what drugs can be used to target and fight it.”
In 2012, shortly after he joined Caris, David’s aunt received the difficult diagnosis of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. In an effort to save her life, David and his colleagues decided to utilize the company’s Next Generation Sequencing technology, which could analyze 57 genes at one time, a vast improvement over the pre-2012 Sanger Sequencing DNA measurement tool, which measured only one gene at a time.
“We needed more robust tools to better decipher the complexity of cancer tumors. For that reason, we developed the ADAPT Biotargeting System™, which allows us incredible specificity to measure aspects and aberrations of a protein complex across many different cancer cells.”
David also oversaw the design, development, validation and commercialization of Caris’ 592-gene DNA genomic profiling platform in 2015. Additionally, he recently led the launch of MI Transcriptome™, which enables whole transcriptome sequencing (WTS) to gain insights into the RNA profiles of patient tumors.
In fact, these technologies can help decipher the complexity resulting from the biological system comprised of 22,000 genes at the DNA level, more than 200,000 different versions at the RNA level, and two million proteins.
Why is this important? “If we don’t find cancer in the early stages, it can’t be cut out. More advanced stages of cancer require harsher drugs, which can be very tough on patients. We want to choose the right drugs with the least side effects,” David explains. “The worst thing would be to give a patient a drug that doesn’t affect the cancer and takes them down a painful road of side effects, further reducing the efficacy of the patient’s immune system.”
David knows that cancer is a complicated disease. And while there is much more to learn, he believes understanding the complexity of cancer tumors and the minutiae of cells can help guide more personalized treatments. “We’re looking at a complex system, and we need a way to interpret what happens to these individuals. That means we need to know how patients respond to drugs they receive and assess clinical outcomes data matched with molecular data to decipher the meaning.”
Caris Life Sciences now has clinical outcomes data, beginning in 2009, from approximately 20,000 patients and molecular data from more than 160,000 patients. “As these data grow, we are using new technologies like machine learning to find patterns that will direct us to improved treatments for patients based on their genetic makeup. Our AI technology, DEAN (Deliberation Analytics), has the computational power to run algorithms over and over, highlighting complex patterns,” David explains. “That is the ultimate payoff. These AI signatures (called NGP™) coupled with all the testing platforms we use, are able to dramatically reduce unnecessary therapies and identify the right therapies for individuals, resulting in substantial improvement of quality and longevity of life for cancer patients.”
A Shifting Paradigm
“Continued advancements in molecular profiling are shifting the paradigm for cancer diagnosis and treatment,” David states. “This will have profound impact on cancer care. Understanding the exact nature of each person’s cancer is critical to finding more intelligent ways to combat it. Diagnostics are paving the way for personalized therapies, and the work we are doing is driving advancements in the field which is saving lives and changing the world.”