EpicentRx owes its inception and existence to one courageous, visionary and dedicated individual, Dr. Mark Bednarski, an organic chemistry professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Diagnosed with colon cancer, shortly after his 33rd birthday, Dr. Bednarski went to medical school at Stanford and became an assistant professor of radiology. On a skiing vacation in Utah, he met a chemist from ATK Thiokol, a defense and aerospace contractor involved in the design and manufacture of rocket fuel and military-grade explosives. It was a fateful meeting. The two chemists, reportedly drawing structures in the snow, turned the serendipity of their chance encounter into workable ideas about the potential medicinal applications of nitrogen-rich explosives.
What initially sparked Dr. Bednarski’s imagination and ignited a concerted effort to identify promising therapeutic candidates at Stanford University in the laboratory of his colleague, Dr. Susan Knox, a practicing radiation oncologist, was the potential for these fuel-rich compounds to selectively damage cancer cells before decomposing to non-toxic byproducts in combination with radiation. The transition from the lift to the Stanford lab resulted in the formation of a unique biopharma company, EpicentRx, based on the studies of these compounds with radiation. An unprecedented collaboration between a venture capital firm, academia and the defense contractor ATK Thiokol, under the auspices of EpicentRx, ensued to develop a highly innovative anticancer compound, called RRx-001.
Fast forward to 2011 when RRx-001 entered clinical trials at UCSD in San Diego and Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville for patients with advanced solid tumors and lymphomas.
From patient to pioneer, the ending to the story is bittersweet, however, because Dr. Bednarski died in 2006 from colon cancer at the age of 47. Nevertheless, the initial history of RRx-001 and its successful transition from the ski bench to the bedside honors Dr. Bednarski unconventional scientific brilliance and approach to life.
Dr. Bednarski challenged the status quo, and bucked trends with an unbounded hunger for experimentation, a fascination and receptivity to compounds not traditionally regarded as “classical” by the Pharmaceutical industry and an interest in incorporating these unfamiliar compounds into clinical trials.
To his successors in EpicentRx, Inc Dr. Bednarski bequeathed less a particular approach to drug development than an example: of courage and conﬁdence in the face of highly skeptical scientists and investors, and an example of what can result from a belief in the power of experimentation and the visionary possibility of using unconventional compounds not formerly considered pharmaceuticals in conventional ways and of adapting techniques from other disciplines.
RRx-001 was created in Dr. Bednarski’s maverick image: iconoclastic, forward-looking and one-of-a-kind, a testament to the primacy of the scientist’s intuition over collective tradition, and a reflection of his life and pioneering approach to anticancer drug development for clinical trials. Dr. Bednarski was defined by his genius, perceptiveness, guts, sheer nuts-and-bolts ability, a willingness to expand the whole concept of traditional drug development, and the fierce desire to help improve the outcomes of cancer patients. How well he succeeded is something that only time will tell.
Dr. Susan Knox is co-founder of EpicentRx. Dr. Knox is an associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in the department of radiation oncology. Within the school of medicine, she is part of the training programs in cancer biology, immunology and molecular pharmacology, as well as an advising dean. Dr. Knox is also a member of the Stanford University Bio X program and Comprehensive Cancer Center. At the Cancer Center, she is a physician in the clinical department of radiation oncology, a member of the cancer biology and experimental therapeutics programs, director of the protocol review and monitoring system, and chair of the data and safety monitoring committee.
In addition, Dr. Knox has published over 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles focused on radiation oncology, radiobiology, targeted therapies and novel radiosensitizers. She has filed six patents and has received national awards and recognition for research. In addition, she was on the selection committee for the Charles F. Kettering Award from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, and was named a Lazard Faculty Scholar.
Dr. Knox has served on numerous educational, scientific and translational medicine committees within national and international organizations/societies, in addition to editorial boards for several academic journals. Dr. Knox brings more than 20 years of experience working in the medical field, focusing on radiation oncology and translational medicine.
EpicentRx was founded and is supported by InterWest Partners, a well established Silicon Valley venture capital firm with a proven track record for investments in life science companies with game-changing biopharmaceuticals, diagnostics and medical devices.
InterWest invested in EpicentRx, seeing it as a source of novel materials that could lead to drugs with novel activity profiles and mechanisms of action as well as strong Intellectual Property coverage.