Ross Cagan is attempting to change the mindset when it comes to treating cancer. Rather than go the route of attacking tumors with tar­geted therapy, the pio­neering researcher and his col­leagues at Mount Sinai Hos­pital in New York are taking an inno­v­a­tive approach to making treat­ment more personalized—one that involves an unlikely test subject.

(Tar­geted therapy) is not really per­son­al­ized med­i­cine. It’s more genomics by voting,” Cagan said Thursday after­noon at North­eastern as the keynote speaker at the Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speaker Series.

Cagan is the director of the hospital’s Center for Per­son­al­ized Med­i­cine and a pro­fessor of devel­op­ment and regen­er­a­tive biology, onco­log­ical sci­ences, and oph­thal­mology. His approach to a more per­son­al­ized form of cancer treat­ment: it starts with the Drosophila melanogaster, or what is com­monly known as the fruit fly.

Their approach involves cre­ating a genetic copy of a patient’s tumor in a fly and then testing thou­sands of drugs to see if any of them—either alone or in combinations—eradicates the tumor without killing the fly. The next step: to admin­ister the suc­cessful drug cock­tail to the human patient.

The Center for Per­son­al­ized Med­i­cine opened its doors on Sept. 1, Cagan said, and focuses on three spe­cific types of cancer: medullary thy­roid cancer, col­orectal cancer, and triple neg­a­tive breast cancer. They are just begin­ning to treat patients and have set a goal to get 50 patients for each type of cancer.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun and pioneering cancer researcher Ross Cagan discuss Cagan's work on Thursday at the Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series event. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun and pio­neering cancer researcher Ross Cagan dis­cuss Cagan’s work on Thursday at the Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speaker Series event. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Cagan described his work to more than 100 stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff in a standing-​​room-​​only Raytheon Amphithe­ater, as many others watched online. It was the first Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speakers Series event of the fall semester.

North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun hosts the series, which is designed to bring the world’s most cre­ative minds to campus for con­ver­sa­tions on inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship. Pre­vious speakers include Nobel lau­reate Sir Harold Kroto, cell biol­o­gist Jeanne Lawrence, global busi­ness strate­gist Vijay Govin­darajan, and IBM Watson cre­ator David Fer­rucci.

Fol­lowing his talk, Cagan dis­cussed his work and its impli­ca­tions with Aoun and fielded ques­tions from the audi­ence. He was asked mul­tiple ques­tions about funding avenues for his inno­v­a­tive work, including one from Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, who inquired about the impact of philanthropy.

Very often the people giving through phil­an­thropy got where they are because they took risks,” Cagan responded. “They like it when I say, ‘This is risky and it might not work.’”

Cagan went on to say he believes fed­eral research funding should be awarded based on the researcher’s rep­u­ta­tion, rather than the project itself. “You should bet on the jockey, not on the horse,” Cagan said. “Make it per­for­mance depen­dent and not on how well a researcher can tell a story (in a grant proposal).”

Ross Cagan spoke to more than 100 members of the Northeastern community on Thursday. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Ross Cagan spoke to more than 100 mem­bers of the North­eastern com­mu­nity on Thursday. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Aoun asked Cagan to elab­o­rate on a com­pany he co-​​founded called Medros Inc., which screens drugs for effec­tive­ness against cancer and dia­betes. He said he started the com­pany as a means of accel­er­ating the process to get his lab’s suc­cessful drug cock­tails out to the public.

Cagan used this story to offer advice to young researchers, including those in the audi­ence. “I’m all about new gen­er­a­tion biol­o­gists learning how to take risks,” he said. “There is a huge world out there if you are willing to take your own risk and start a small company.”

Prior to his research career, Cagan was a musi­cian, and he was asked how he has applied the artistic process to his work in sci­ence. He explained that in both fields, it’s ben­e­fi­cial to master cer­tain activities—such as playing an instru­ment or per­forming an experiment—in order to free your mind to think and spend less time thinking about com­pleting the activity itself.

If you can get that under some rigor, then you free your­self to think about things like why you are doing this,” Cagan said.