Five^3 Genomics, a Santa Cruz-based company that develops cancer genomics computer software, was founded by three former UC Santa Cruz graduate students in October of this year. The company develops software for researchers as well as health-care and pharmaceutical organizations that can be used to develop a personalized cancer treatment plan for a patient.
City on a Hill Press: What inspired you to enter into the cancer genomics field? What made you want to go into this specific branch of cancer research?
Steve Benz: My father is an oncologist, so I worked with him in the past, doing summer internships and other things concerned with work on cancer data. Growing up, I was always really interested in computer science and did a lot of programming when I was younger. That was right when cancer data starting becoming more available … There were a lot of opportunities to write programs and analyze the data. There are a lot of interesting, bigger data problems — even now, it’s becoming more of a computer-based issue than a biological problem. Cancer genomics … came about in the 90s about the same time that I got into programming. It was a natural fit. It’s something that I could apply my skills to. Cancer is a complex disease. It affects half of all men and a third of all women at some point in their lives. It’s a disease we’ve made the least amount of progress on. In the last 50 years, we’ve only decreased the number of people who die from cancer by about 5 percent. It isn’t caused by foreign
pathogens, it’s an issue with your body’s natural defenses.
CHP: What does your company hope to achieve? And what steps will it take for you to reach that goal?
Benz: We’re trying to take the work we did in an academic setting and make it available to the public in
the short term. Right now it takes 10–15 years for work in a research setting to make it into the clinics, and we want to cut that down to days or minutes. We’re trying to make our research available to clinics to help patients, because we can’t afford to use treatments that were discovered 20–30 years ago when there are much better ones available. We’re building tools to work with pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies. Part of it is getting insurance companies to accept these treatment options, because they’re still relatively new and most people need insurance companies to be able to afford them. Working with pharmaceutical companies gives us the opportunity to do drug discovery in an efficient manner. Identifying patients ahead of time that are likely to respond to treatment, rather than giving the treatment to everyone and seeing no gains or a rise in survival. We’re also looking to figure out whether drugs that are out there today for similar diseases might also work for cancer treatment — to
repurpose drugs that are already understood to be relatively safe. From the insurance perspective, we’re looking to get away from reimbursing people for procedures, to investing in positive outcomes. We use our tools to show that we can improve outcomes by finding more appropriate treatments.
CHP: Why base the company in Santa Cruz?
Benz: We’re all grad students from UCSC. We were originally in Santa Cruz to study under David
Haussler, and we combined forces to develop programs. We’ve made Santa Cruz our new home, and we want to support the city and the university. We want to be a good example for other graduate students. Right now, for what we’re doing, the location is becoming less important.
CHP: Has your experience as an UCSC student helped shape your career path in any way?
Benz: Yes, absolutely. I was extremely lucky because the caliber of the faculty here is way better than other competitive programs. Santa Cruz as a city has a lot to offer — it’s an interesting mix between city and small town. So many bright individuals really encouraged us.
CHP: Are there a lot of other companies like yours? What makes Five^3 Genomics unique and important?
Benz: There are starting to be a lot more similar companies since there is a lot of data being produced and not many people who understand it. Three to four years ago there were one or two companies, but now
there are probably 20 or 30. There aren’t any others in Santa Cruz, but there are two over the hill out of Stanford and UCSF. We are totally focused on cancer and we understand that cancer is an extremely complex disease that can’t be analyzed with generic approaches to yield useful results. Our algorithms are extremely accurate and fast, and we’ve done a great job on our development. We have a great understanding of our tools and our analysis.
CHP: What projects is your company currently working on?
Benz: We’re focusing now on our web analysis platform which we’re offering free to researchers and pharmaceutical companies to try out. It’s got a great visual tool for understanding the data. We can see what exactly is going on in an individual. We’re pushing to get established with insurance companies so we can establish the effectiveness of our tools.