BOSTON – Sounds like a Hollywood story:
A young resident doctor is encouraged to try road biking at the request of the uncle he admires. The two start rolling together. The resident catches the bike bug, takes a job as a clinician and cancer researcher, and years later conducts a clinical trial that leads to a drug that helps save his uncle’s life.
The story is not a script. That’s what really happened to Dana Farber Cancer Institute doctor and researcher Matt Davids. He is one of two men – at the heart of the story – who are now days away from competing in the Pan Mass Challenge. It will be a celebration of life, health and family.
Matt Davids completed his residency in internal medicine in New York. His uncle Steve Rasch knew Davids was an athlete (he ran in Georgetown) who also enjoyed healthy competition. Steve suggested they start riding together in Central Park. Over the years, other people had suggested that Davids might enjoy riding a bike. But the suggestion carried more weight coming from his uncle Steve. “He’s a big figure in our family,” Davids said. “A lot of people consider him a mentor. He was just a big part of my life.” Over time, they began to explore areas outside of New York on their bicycles. Davids was hooked.
He eventually joined the faculty of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute as a physician and researcher. In 2011, his first year at the DFCI, he participated in the first Pan Mass Challenge and “falls in love” with the event. The camaraderie, cause and inspiration he draws from other runners and spectators is the magic that brings him back to racing every year. He is a member of Team Flames which in its 20 year history has raised over $9.2 million for research and treatment at Dana Farber. Some of this funding has had a profound impact on Davids’ work and on the lives of his patients. For example, he and his colleagues knew that chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells depended on a specific protein to survive. A very promising drug seemed to target this proteins but not the others.
For Davids and the rest of his team, this seemed like an important distinction and one that should be explored in patients. But they needed funding to test the effectiveness of drug combinations. PMC funding was essential.
“When I started as a faculty member, I didn’t have a lot of money to do experiments,” Davids said. “I had a great mentor. But I needed to pay for a technician to help me. I was busy seeing patients. Early support from the PMC helped support a technician and pay for experiments to look at various combinations.”
Ultimately, Davids conducted a clinical trial that in 2016 resulted in FDA approval of a drug called Venetoclax. He celebrated the breakthrough with his Flames teammates who visited his lab the same day the drug received FDA approval.
Six days later, he received a sobering email from his aunt. Uncle Steve had been diagnosed with CLL. “Which totally blew my mind,” David recalls. “It’s the disease I’ve dedicated my entire professional life to studying…I treat hundreds of CLL patients. Now my uncle has been diagnosed with the same disease! The coincidence was lost on Steve who says he had no idea his “awesome” nephew was a world-renowned expert on the disease. After finding out and getting his nephew’s recommendations for an oncologist in Manhattan, Steve recalls feeling “enormous comfort.” He was convinced that he would overcome the disease.
Steve didn’t need years of treatment. He worked, travelled, played the violin and rode his bicycle. But when he developed enough illnesses to require treatment, his diet drug was Venetoclax. Davids says he’s grateful his job played a role in Steve’s treatment. “Obviously I want to help as many patients as possible. But being able to help my uncle has made it more meaningful and personal to me.”
Steve’s one-year treatment ended in the summer of 2021.
His cancer is in complete remission.
He is preparing to ride his first PMC with his daughter Fay and with Davids who is currently riding at Sturbridge from the New York border. (Runners who follow the unofficial three-day route are known as “Day Zero” runners.)
Along the way, Davids will see a number of his patients who also support his run.
Brenda Hegarty doesn’t miss an opportunity to cheer on Davids and her Flames teammates, her hand-held thank you sign held high on day two.
Seeing her on Cape Cod is another reminder of the power of Pan Mass Challenge funding in the work of rescuing and improving Davids life.
CLL is the most common form of leukemia. But there is no cure. What keeps patients alive are the treatments born out of experiments in labs like Davids.
As he prepares for a new clinical trial, he is filled with hope. “It looks very promising. So promising that we got support from Astrazeneca to do a phase 3 trial. I hope to lead the trial – a global trial with 750 patients in 40 sites around the world… Everything started with this initial support from PMC to help define the combination and move on to the next trial and now hopefully a study that could change the whole standard of care for the disease.