Location: Vancouver, Canada
Dr. Sandra Dunn has dedicated over 20 years to breast cancer research and the biotech industry. She earned a degree in molecular biology from Hiram College, an institution she believes has a tremendous research program. A few years later, she pursued an MSc and Ph.D from North Carolina State University’s Department of Toxicology, where she later served as an adjunct assistant professor for various biology courses.
Dr. Sandra Dunn was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institutes of Health for five years, where she researched molecular carcinogenesis, known in layman’s terms as the formation of cancer. At this institution, as well as the Department of Defence Breast Cancer Research Program and the Susan Komen Foundation, Dr. Dunn reviewed grants for breast cancer research, enabling researchers across the country to study the disease.
After moving to Canada in the 2000s, Dr. Sandra Dunn continued her teaching as an associate professor at the University of British Columbia. She also served on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.
In 2012, her passions for entrepreneurship, women’s health, and breast cancer research converged as she established Phoenix Molecular Designs. At PhoenixMD, top breast cancer researchers focus their efforts on understanding triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), one of the most aggressive forms of the disease. PhoenixMD has received awards, including first place at BIO 2016’s Coast-Coast Pitch Competition, and recognition from Global TV and the Huffington Post.
The discovery of RSK2, a protein that serves as TNBC’s weak point, helped Dr. Dunn and her fellow researchers develop a specialized drug known as PMD-026. The goal of the drug is to target RSK2, weakening TNBC and serving as a viable treatment option for those diagnosed.
As Dr. Sandra Dunn and her fellow researchers prepare to take PMD-026 into clinical trials, it’s important to understand what sparked her passion. The inspiration for Dr. Sandra Dunn’s near-30 years of breast cancer research can be attributed to one person—her grandmother.
Our Interview With Dr. Sandra Dunn
How did you get involved with breast cancer research in particular?
Dr. Sandra Dunn: I got involved when my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. When breast cancer hits someone you love beyond measure, you quickly learn as much about the topic as you can. One thing I learned from her diagnosis was that all breast cancers are not the same. She was lucky because her cancer was caught at an early stage and it could be treated with Tamoxifen, which blocks hormone signaling in the cancer cells. Had she been diagnosed with a later stage of breast cancer or a more aggressive form such as triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), her odds of beating breast cancer would have been very different. It made me want to study breast cancer so that I might be part of a solution that gives women a fighting chance to survive this disease. Most of my research over the past 20 years has been focused on TNBC and we are just now starting to see some real improvements in treatments.
What all has your research encompassed?
Dr. Sandra Dunn: I have mainly concentrated on identify new drug targets for breast cancer. The idea is to develop drugs that are safer and take aim at the cancer specifically. We have also worked on understanding why breast cancers develop resistance to therapies that are currently available. Lastly, we are interesting in drilling down on cellular pathways that keep metastatic breast cancer growing so that we can stop it. This is because 90% of all cancer deaths worldwide are due to cancer metastases, or the spread of cancer in the body.
What drove you to establish Phoenix Molecular Designs?
Dr. Sandra Dunn: In 2012, we made a very important discovery in the laboratory which made me want to start a company. We had a fresh patent filed and we were super excited about the prospects of developing a drug that specifically blocked RSK2, which was the protein we identified as being the Achilles Heel of TNBC. I also love the business side of science and always thought I would run my own company one day.
How have your research and entrepreneurship shaped your character?
Dr. Sandra Dunn: Out of the gate, I would say I am brave and tenacious. Research teaches you to be precise and to be disciplined. It also teaches you patience. Being an entrepreneur has really allowed me to develop my love for connecting with people and building fantastic teams. I get tremendous energy out of working with talented people who are super creative and bring something unique to the table. To be a successful entrepreneur you have to be a team player and you also have to be humble – willing to learn- willing to grow.
What, in your research and entrepreneurship, has challenged you the most? Surprised you the most?
Dr. Sandra Dunn: The most challenging lesson I have learned is that it is perfectly okay to do it my way. I do not have to be like everyone else, I am a learner and not a follower. I surprise myself with how fearless I have become and I think most of that is driven by the passion to help patients with breast cancer because I in my heart believe we can.
What advice do you have for budding researchers/entrepreneurs?
Dr. Sandra Dunn: Don’t be afraid to step into the light. It does not matter where you came from but rather where you are going. If you are female the odds are you will have to work that much harder as an entrepreneur but at the same time you have more to gain. Live with no regrets and remember to be grateful for what you learn along the way.