BOSTON - It sounds like a story from Hollywood:
A young medical resident is encouraged to try road biking at the behest of the uncle he admires. The two begin riding together. The resident gets the cycling bug, accepts 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 isn't a screenplay. It's what actually happened to Dana Farber Cancer Institute doctor and researcher Matt Davids. He is one of the two men--at the heart of the story--who are now just days from riding the Pan Mass Challenge. It will be a celebration of life, health, and family.
Matt Davids completed his internal medicine residency in New York City. His uncle Steve Rasch knew that Davids was an athlete (he ran at Georgetown) who also appreciated healthy competition. Steve suggested that they begin riding together in Central Park. Over the years, other people had suggested that Davids might enjoy cycling. But the suggestion carried more weight coming from his Uncle Steve. "He's a huge figure in our family," Davids said. "A lot of people look to him as a mentor. He's just been a huge part of my life." Over time, they began exploring areas outside New York City on their bikes. Davids was hooked.
He eventually joined the faculty at Dana Farber Cancer Institute as a doctor and a researcher. In 2011, his first year at DFCI, he rode the first Pan Mass Challenge and "fell in love" with the event. The camaraderie, the cause, and the inspiration he draws from other riders and spectators is the magic that brings him back to the ride every year. He is a member of Team Flames which, in its 20-year history, has raised more than $9.2 million for research and treatment at Dana Farber. Some of that funding has had a profound impact on Davids' work and his patients' lives. For example, he and his colleagues knew that Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia cells depended on a specific protein to survive. A drug that held great promise seemed to target that protein but not others.
To Davids and the rest of his team, it seemed an important distinction and one that should be explored in patients. But they needed funding to test the efficacy of drug combinations. PMC funding was key.
"When I was starting out 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 a technician to help me. I was busy seeing patients. Early support from the PMC helped support a tech and pay for experiments to look at various combinations."
Ultimately, Davids led 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 on the very day the drug received FDA approval.
Six days later, he received a sobering e-mail from his aunt. Uncle Steve had been diagnosed with CLL. "Which totally blew my mind," David recalls. "This is the disease I have devoted my entire professional life to studying … I treat hundreds of patients with CLL. Now my uncle was diagnosed with the same disease!" The coincidence was lost on Steve who says he had no idea that his "genius" nephew was a world-renowned expert on the disease. Upon finding out and getting his nephew's recommendations for an oncologist in Manhattan, Steve remembers feeling "enormous comfort." He was confident that he would beat the disease.
Steve didn't need treatment years. He worked, traveled, played the violin and rode his bike. But when he developed enough disease to require treatment, the drug in his regimen was Venetoclax. Davids says he is grateful that his work played a role in Steve's treatment. "Obviously I want to help as many patients as possible. But being able to help my uncle made it more meaningful and personal for me."
Steve's year-long 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 actually riding to Sturbridge from the New York border. (Riders following the unofficial three-day route are known as "Day Zero" riders.)
Along the route, Davids will see a number of his patients who also support his ride.
Brenda Hegarty doesn't miss a chance to cheer for Davids and his Flames teammates, her handmade "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 Davids' lifesaving, life-enhancing work.
CLL is the most common form of leukemia. But there is no cure. What's keeping patients alive are the treatments born 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 with Astrazeneca to do a Phase 3 trial. I'm hoping to lead the trial—a global trial with 750 patients in 40 sites around the world… It all started with that initial support from PMC to help define the combination and go to the next trial and now, hopefully, a study that could change the whole standard of care for the disease."
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