‘YOU CAN’T CURE GLIOBLASTOMAS WITH A SCALPEL’: DISCOVERY LEADS TO CAREER SHIFT

Dr. Shawn Carbonell says the training he received in the UVA School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program was invaluable. (Contributed photo)

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The walls of Dr. Shawn Carbonell’s office give him peace of mind.

When he looks at them, the University of Virginia alumnus knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that he made the right decision to walk away from the career he had trained for and dreamed of for nearly two decades.

There, in his San Francisco Bay-area office, are photos of men, women and children whom he has gotten to know through his new line of work.

They all have brain cancer.

“At least half of them are gone now, because it’s so aggressive,” Carbonell said.

That aggressiveness is why Carbonell knew he needed to change course and start his own biopharma company rather than becoming a neurosurgeon.

Time was of the essence. Too many people were dying. Too quickly. And Carbonell believed he had an idea that could help.

Today, that idea is coming closer to helping some of those people on Carbonell’s walls.

“My vision is it will be one of the go-to tools for oncologists to treat virtually any cancer.”

– SHAWN CARBONELL

Carbonell has created a new class of drug therapies that he believes will give patients with cancer a better chance for survival. The lead candidate, OS2966, has produced cures in laboratory models of several different cancers. Based on these early results, the FDA has already granted “orphan drug status” to OS2966 in the treatment of glioblastoma and ovarian cancer. (The FDA describes orphan drugs as “those intended for the safe and effective treatment, diagnosis or prevention of rare diseases/disorders that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S., or that affect more than 200,000 persons but are not expected to recover the costs of developing and marketing a treatment drug.”)

“My vision is it will be one of the go-to tools for oncologists to treat virtually any cancer,” Carbonell said.

Carbonell, a graduate of UVA’s Medical Scientist Training Program – a National Institutes of Health-funded combined M.D./Ph.D. program to produce physician-scientists – was born in Windsor, Ontario and grew up in Seattle.

From a young age, Carbonell was interested in science. One of his earliest memories is when a teacher at his elementary school asked him to draw what he wanted to be when he grew up and he drew a picture of himself as a scientist.

Mesmerized by reptiles, insects and plants, Carbonell would drag his dad to several local libraries every week and devoured every book on the subjects. Subsequently, he became fascinated by human biology. “I have always been drawn to the natural world,” Carbonell said.

While at the University of Washington as an undergraduate, Carbonell became intrigued by the brain.

In 1999, inspired by his mentors, he came to UVA with the intention of becoming an academic neurosurgeon.

“It was clear early on that he had a passion for doing research that would help patients who had either neurological disease or brain cancers,” said Gary Owens, a professor of cardiovascular research in UVA’s School of Medicine who then directed the Medical Scientist Training Program.

Carbonell cherished his time at UVA under Owens and his dissertation co-advisers Dr. Jim Mandell and Rick Horwitz.

“It was my favorite period in all of my training,” Carbonell said. “Charlottesville is beautiful and UVA was an amazing place to do science.”

“The  [Medical Scientist Training Program] was like a family. We enjoyed various programmatic activities like summer and winter retreats and wine-tasting tours. Socially, it was very enriching which is always helpful to offset the stress of grad school.”

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