Kenna R. Mills Shaw, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy and Cancer Genomics Laboratory at the University of Texas, which was established at MD Anderson Cancer Center following a $150 million grant from the royal family of the United Arab Emirates. As part of Slone Partners’ ongoing series of interviews with scientific healthcare industry trailblazers in conjunction with Personalized Medicine Coalition, we are delighted to present our exclusive interview with Dr. Shaw.

Slone Partners: Geographically, the gift to Texas-based MD Anderson from the royal family came from the other side of the planet. What does this say about the state of international cancer research, advances and treatment? 

Dr. Shaw: These donors have made many contributions to healthcare around the world.  I think it suggests that healthcare is a global issue and the desire to invest in the best and brightest in different fields is a priority for the Khalifa Foundation and other donors whose mission is to improve the status of human health globally.

Slone Partners: Tell us about the Moon Shots Program® Cancer Genomics Laboratory Platform – what’s happened so far, what’s happening in 2019, and looking into the near future? And how does all this fit in with MD Anderson’s Translational Research Accelerator (TRA)?

Dr. Shaw: The platform is quite simply a laboratory that facilitates high quality genomic sequencing for a broad number of users that are dedicated to data sharing and data integration. The Translational Research Accelerator is essentially the idea that we should be making data available across the institution for researchers, clinicians, etc., to data mine, integrate, and put next to public data sets while bringing in clinical data. By supporting a research sequencing platform and helping make the sequence data accessible and affordable, we can entice our investigators to share and lower any logistical and/or regulatory hurdles that might impede it.

Slone Partners: Personalized cancer therapy includes tailoring patient journeys from diagnosis to perhaps surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and immunological manipulation. At the human level, at the patient and oncologist level in any small town in America, how does your personalized cancer work at the Cancer Genomics Laboratory potentially touch that patient doctor relationship?

Dr. Shaw: I hope that our work can make the information accessible and identify disconnects to influence a patient’s care. Our work attempts to better understand success and failures regarding precision medicine, like how individual treatments are selected based on a patient’s specific tumor biomarkers. We also try to better understand why patients respond or don’t respond to treatment by understanding other metrics in a patient’s phenome. We must go beyond single biomarkers, single treatments, and single analyte assays. And we must assume that if we couple that data with a single drug or a chemotherapy plus targeted agent, that we are going to get outcomes in a disease we know to be more complex in biology than that approach addresses. 

Slone Partners: Your relationship with the disease began with your father’s sudden death from kidney cancer. Where was this event in relation to your professional life and how did your life change?

Dr. Shaw: My father passed away 17 days after his diagnosis with kidney cancer during my first year of graduate school.  Unfortunately, the disease was already widely metastatic at the time of diagnosis. I had taken a leave of absence to get him into a clinical trial at Hopkins and NIH, and we had met in Michigan for a brief vacation before we were to return to get the final tests for entry onto the trial. He passed away suddenly there. After dealing with his affairs, I returned to graduate school.

I have to admit that I am not sure that my father’s death had anything to do with my ultimate career path. I entered graduate school focused on a non-cancer path, leaving it to do a post-doc in developmental biology of zebrafish, a model I chose because I was very much interested in science education. I actually pursued a career in that field (science ed) until finally starting back at the National Cancer Institute in 2009. When I started back at NCI, I was hired essentially to manage a website because people thought education was akin to communication. While they were/are not the same, it was an opportunity to begin a paying career and a path forward with NCI.

Slone Partners: What makes you happy personally?

Dr. Shaw: Watching my son play baseball, my daughter dance, and cooking/baking.