Decoding Cancer

UNLOCKING THE DARK SECRETS of why brain tumors respond better to some treatments than others is more than just science and medicine for Dr. Ranjit Bindra ’94.

It’s personal for the co-director of Yale University’s Brain Tumor Center, who lost his father to a different type of cancer after a five-year battle. “I think that galvanized an interest pursuing this type of career,” Bindra says.

Bindra is a physician-scientist and biotechnology entrepreneur, specializing in the study of pediatric glioma.

Fewer than one in four children survive the aggressive form of brain cancer five years after being diagnosed. To understand such a terrible disease, clinicians such as Bindra frequently try to harvest tumor cells from terminally ill toddlers and young children.

It’s a tough ask—and it’s an even more heart-wrenching proposition for parents.

“That’s probably one of the hardest parts of treating pediatric brain tumors,” says Bindra, an associate professor of therapeutic radiology and experimental pathology at Yale. “They actually realize that in the bigger picture they can contribute to prevent heartache to another set of parents. People have been remarkably open to doing that.”

The approach to treating cancer is ever-changing, Bindra says.

“There’s going to be a large sea change or shift,” he says. “We’re going away from organ cancers. Over the last five to 10 years, we are now understanding that all of the tumors out there are more importantly driven by specific tumor mutations. We may actually target the mutation across five or six tumor types.”

Bindra received his undergraduate degree, M.D., and Ph.D. from Yale. He did his residency and internship at Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, and overlapped at MSKCC with Will Polkinghorn ’95, a radiation oncologist.

“Will and I were residents at Memorial Sloan-Kettering for five years,” Bindra says. “We actually did not realize that we had both gone to Taft until after we finished.”

He teamed up with his thesis advisor while in medical school to found his own company, Helix Therapeutics. But then the biotech bubble burst in 2008–09.

Bindra wasn’t discouraged, however. Taking the lessons from his first setback, he started Cybrexa Therapeutics two years ago at Science Park, a biotech incubator established by Yale, the city of New Haven, the state of Connecticut, and the Olin Corp. in the former Winchester Firearms factory.

Cybrexa employs 20 people and has raised more than $27 million in capital to bring its best tumor targeting technology to patients. Bindra compares it to a “heat-seeking missile.”

“We can unleash the immune system to actually target the tumor,” Bindra says.

He travels extensively, between supervising clinical trials and going to conferences, attending three or four a month.

“Science is a lot like rock and roll—you play songs and to make them popular, you have to get out and promote them,” Bindra says.

Social media is also playing a significant role raising awareness about clinical trials.

“People are now on Facebook talking about support groups and trials,” he says. But cancer isn’t the only obstacle facing medical pioneers. So is government funding, which he laments has flatlined.

“It’s a major problem,” he says. “It is actually a growing crisis. The National Institutes of Health is really the critical lifeblood.”

Bindra fears the funding glut could diminish the talent pool in oncology. “Many people are rethinking, from the middle of graduate school, whether they want to go into academia,” he says. “That’s really not the problem you should be thinking about.”

Visit Bindra’s cancer lab website, and the camaraderie is evident between Bindra and his Yale colleagues. Each lists his or her favorite “gene” next to their favorite New Haven restaurant and television show or movie. Bindra’s is DNA PKcs, which stands for protein kinase, catalytic subunit. It’s a metabolic gene that Bindra likens to the furnace of a cell. He and his colleagues play laser tag and do group dinners. “We have a vibrant atmosphere, where we make the hard work of science fun,” he says.

Bindra traces his love of science to Taft chemistry classes with longtime faculty member David Hostage—he even dedicated his thesis to him. He recalls spending Saturdays doing questions in the back of his chemistry book for fun.

“Will Polkinghorn and I continue to communicate and joke that we need to start a company together,” he says.

“There’s a weird thing that all roads seem to lead back to Taft.”

—Neil Vigdor ’95