Saurabh Saha is an American-born physician-scientist, pharmaceutical executive, biotech entrepreneur and inventor. He is notable for leading the development and demonstrating human effectiveness of two first-in-class cancer drugs, an ERK kinase inhibitor (Ulixertinib; BVD-523) and a bacteriolytic immunotherapy (C. novyi-NT). His pioneering efforts in ‘cancer biosurgery’, whereby living organisms are used to microscopically destroy tumor cells while sparing normal tissue, received international acclaim in August 2014 when his paper in Science Translational Medicine described the first use of Clostridium novyi-NT to effectively treat a human patient with a chemotherapy and radiotherapy resistant cancer.
TIME magazine reported, “In a groundbreaking study, researchers say injecting bacteria into a tumor helped shrink it… directly injecting Clostridium novyi, a common bacteria species that doesn’t need oxygen to survive, into tumors in both dogs and a single human patient shrunk or eliminated tumors and possibly bolstered the immune system to continue targeting tumor cells for up to two years. Unlike the latest targeted drugs that hone in on specific genetic mutations in cancer cells, the bacteria can be effective against any solid tumor that has a low-oxygen region, regardless of whatever genetic mutation caused it grow out of control.”
Education and Business Career
Dr. Saha received his B.Sc. in biology from the California Institute of Technology graduating with honors near the top of his class in 2.5 years. He received his M.D. and Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He is also an alumnus of Oxford University and Harvard Business School, studying biophysics and general management respectively. At Johns Hopkins, he completed his thesis work on the biological causes of metastatic cancer under renowned cancer researcher, Dr. Bert Vogelstein – considered the father of modern cancer genetics and the most highly cited scientist in the world. After turning down a career in neurosurgery, he joined the New York office of the management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company as an Associate in the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Products Practice. While at McKinsey, Saha wrote in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery about the importance of academic institutions working closely alongside biotech and pharmaceutical companies to translate discoveries from the bench to the bedside.
Shortly after, he returned to medical research as the head of a new therapeutic division at Novartis. At Novartis, he identified a novel way of treating secretory diarrhea by targeting a chloride channel often mutated in cystic fibrosis and established a collaboration with OneWorld Health and the Gates Foundation to discover new Third World anti-diarrheal medications. According to the Wall Street Journal where his work was reported, “Cystic-fibrosis patients have a defective gene that stops water from entering the lungs, leading to a build-up of thick mucus in the lungs. In secretory diarrhea, infectious agents such as E. coli cause too much water to enter the bowel and leave the body, leading to dehydration. A drug against diarrhea would narrow or shut down the cellular channels that cause too much water to enter the bowel.”
In 2008, Saha led pivotal efforts to launch BioMed Valley Discoveries, which seeks to pursue challenging and unconventional therapies with a mission to change medicine. First as Chief Scientific Officer and then President of BioMed Valley, he translated a number of new cancer drugs from basic science laboratories into later stage preclinical testing and human clinical trials. Realizing that cancers ultimately develop resistance to targeted drugs, he lead the development of a novel first-in-class ERK kinase inhibitor (BVD-523; Ulixertinib) for those cancers addicted to the MAPK pathway and resistant to marketed cancer drugs targeting the pathway. In 2015, Saha joined the Cambridge Massachusetts-based life sciences venture capital firm, Atlas Venture, as a Venture Partner and as Chief Medical Officer of Synlogic. He subsequently took the helm as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Delinia, a biotech company focused on developing novel therapeutics for the treatment of autoimmune disease and cancer. In 2017, just four months after announcing the launch of Delinia, Saurabh led the sale of Delinia to Celgene for $775 million, one of the highest returns in the history of biotech.
Dr. Saha is a Visiting Scientist at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and an Associate Member of Harvard Medical School. He currently serves on the Editorial Boards of the Journal of Translational Medicine, the Journal of Cancer Therapy, Cancer Biology and Therapy, Pharmacology, and the American Journal of Clinical Oncology and is on the Board of Directors of BioMed Valley Discoveries, the Johns Hopkins Alliance for Science and Technology and formerly the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Mid-America. Dr. Saha has been selected as a Harvard Medical School Global Clinical Scholar and a finalist for the White House Fellowship, the Nation’s most prestigious program for leadership and public service.
Saha’s published research has tackled: pioneering ‘cancer biosurgery’ for the treatment of localized cancer (Science Translational Medicine, 2014); the discovery of the first genetic mutation in metastatic cancer (Science, 2001); the co-development of the first method to identify human genes unambiguously (Nature Biotechnology, 2002); the first systematic mutational analysis of a gene family in any human cancer type (Science, 2003) – an approach which spearheaded the subsequent large-scale sequencing of genes mutated in human cancers by research labs around the world; and the discovery of new uses of approved non-cancer drugs for the treatment of cancer through systematic screening of marketed drugs in animal models of cancer (PLoS One, 2014). He has published over 70 papers and patents (issued and pending) for his discoveries in the fields of translational medicine and cancer research.