5 Questions with Dr. Sujuan Ba, a weekly BioBuzz series - NFCR

Blog

5 Questions with Dr. Sujuan Ba, President & CEO of the National Foundation for Cancer Research

This article was originally published on the BioBuzz website.

“5 Questions With…” is a weekly BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people in the BioHealth Capital Region to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. This week we welcome 5 Questions with Dr. Sujuan Ba, President & CEO of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, Co-Founder & CEO of AIM-HI Accelerator Fund.

Dr. Sujuan Ba is the President and CEO of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, Founder and CEO of the Asian Fund for Cancer Research, Co-Founder and CEO of AIM-HI Accelerator Fund, and Co-Founder and founding board member/Chair of the Audit Committee of the Global Coalition for Adaptive Research.

Dr. Ba received the NBC4 WORKING 4 THE COMMUNITY Award in 2019 to recognize her outstanding achievements as a scientist, leader, and role model in the STEM fields. Dr. Ba also received the inaugural Outstanding Achievement Award from Society for Neuro-Oncology of the Chinese Medical Doctor Association for her outstanding contribution to international cooperation in 2017. She was named one of the “Top 300 Women Leaders in Global Health” in 2015 by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies’ Global Health Programme.  She received the Outstanding Service Award from the Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association-USA in 2014 and received the CRS WOMEN IN SCIENCES Award in 2011

1. Please introduce yourself to our audience with a look back at your education, training, and career.

Life is full of uncertainty and filled with unknowns, which too often leads to doubt and indecision. While many wait before deciding, I chose to follow my heart and explore an unknown path so I might continue expanding my horizons and exploring how I might make a difference.

In the mid-1980s, I was a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. I researched the thermodynamic and kinetic mechanisms of carbon-hydrogen bond activation using novel complexes. To break from this arduous laboratory life, I volunteered to become the “shopping handler” for all the students in our lab, taking the first step to explore my communication and interpersonal abilities beyond my comfort zone.

After graduating from Penn, I sought to pursue a scientific career that would allow me to use and apply all that I had learned in the lab to help people solve real-world problems. I accepted a research position at ARCO Chemical, which gave me tremendous opportunities to learn and grow, propelling me to later positions, especially at NFCR. It has been a challenging yet fulfilling journey, and I’ve been able to use my background and training as a scientist to think “outside the box” and work with others, making progress.

2. You are currently President and CEO of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, President and CEO of the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund, and the Founder and CEO of the Asian Fund for Cancer Research. How do you balance those roles, and how do they overlap?

It has been challenging but rewarding, and I very much appreciate the opportunities I’ve had working with some of the most brilliant and dedicated cancer research leaders worldwide in pursuit of the mission to cure cancer.

NFCR, AFCR, and AIM-HI share common goals: defeating cancer and saving lives. The programs we have built span a full continuum to both foster scientific discovery and make those breakthroughs available to patients:

  • NFCR and AFCR fund Basic Research to understand the fundamental genetic causes of cancer and molecular and cellular approach to stop it, with AFCR focusing on cancers prevalent in Asia;
  • NFCR and AFCR also fund Translational Research which applies lab discoveries and breakthroughs toward new and better cancer-fighting therapies and technologies, with AFCR focusing on cancers prevalent in Asia;
  • AIM-HI works with both NFCR and AFCR to evaluate and fund the oncology startups that develop innovative and first-in-class, and best-in-class experimental cancer drugs and diagnostics.  AIM-HI has a unique approach of impact investment to bridge “the valley of death” in the cancer drug development process.

The global pandemic precipitated by COVID-19 confronted us with the urgent reality that we cannot do it alone. At NFCR, AFCR, and AIM-HI, we focus on the synergies we can create through collaboration. As the CEO of three international cancer-related charities, I have focused on working with others to create synergies that will impact and accelerate research – cures for cancer and other genomic diseases.

3. You have dedicated much of your career to cancer research. Please share your thoughts on how far we’ve come over the past few decades and what you see for the next 10 years.

2020 was an undeniably tumultuous year, but we will remember 2020 as a special year with a triumph of science.

2020 was a story of collaboration and working together. Covid-19 has shown us what is possible when the hands of science worldwide are united: soon after the novel coronavirus was first diagnosed, scientists, both at academic and industry, worked together, identified, unlocked, and sequenced its genetic code and shared this information so that researchers everywhere were able to develop multiple safe and effective vaccines.

However, the triumph of the fastest vaccine development program in history is not just a miracle or a coincidence of discovery or innovation. During the past several decades, tremendous amounts of resources have been invested in basic science research. Advances in genomic research of cancer, diagnostic techniques, targeted therapies, vaccines for cancer, and other medical breakthroughs have made possible the vaccines and treatments for COVID-19!

It is an exciting time to be in cancer research. During the past several years, we have witnessed many landmark discoveries against cancer. New technologies are providing unprecedented insight into understanding cancer causes, progression, and resistance. The endless array of promising cancer drug targets and combinations are moving into clinical pipelines and clinics.

The molecular profiling, biomarker-driven treatment approaches are guiding the treatment of the hard-to-treat cancers, offering more people customized care based on their genes and history. Several forms of immunotherapy, such as checkpoint inhibitors and CAR therapy, are being used to harness the power of the patients’ immune system to fight cancer. And Scientists are starting to learn more about the genes and pathways that drive metastasis, the process by which cancer spreads.

Covid-19 has shown us what is possible when the hands of science worldwide are united and working together.  2021 is set to be one of the most significant years of progress against cancer yet. AI-based cancer detection technologies capable of reducing the number of false positives and false negatives are being developed. New tools are being created which allow us to map gene expression throughout a cancer biopsy. New epigenetic drugs could turn cancer cells back to normal instead of destroying them outright. These are just examples of the exciting developments I expect to see in the coming years.

4. You started AIM-HI Accelerator Fund here in the BioHealth Capital Region. Why did you choose to stay in this region?

AIM-HI was born out of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, a non-profit, tax-exempt organization dedicated to providing critically needed seed funding and networks to oncology startups and helping accelerate the commercialization of breakthroughs in discoveries effective new cancer therapies and diagnosis. While NFCR is headquartered in Bethesda since 1973, it is as if a “Laboratory without Walls” making possible scientific collaboration between scientists at universities and research hospitals worldwide.

The AIM-HI Accelerator Fund shares this vision and has expanded the scope of the research funded by NFCR and AFCR to include scientists at oncology startups—many of which were made possible by NFCR-funded researchers.

NFCR, AFCR, and AIM-HI work together. I believe we have built a solid path for innovation, one that bridges the valley of death to advance scientific discoveries and make breakthroughs by scientists at universities and research hospitals available to patients.

It turns out that Bethesda is an extraordinary place for innovative cancer research and discovery. With so many leading scientists and researchers at the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, George Washington, and American Universities and so many innovative biopharmaceutical companies—many leading thought leaders are willing and able to make a difference.

5. If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be and why?

Margaret Thatcher is my role model; I would have loved to switch places with her for a week. We both studied chemistry and worked briefly as research chemists before we each took on a different path in life. Margaret Thatcher had a strong conviction and firm leadership style. Yet, she was able to unite the parties to implement a series of economic policies which reversed the UK’s high inflation in the wake of an oncoming recession and successfully lead to the privatization of state-owned companies, and same time reducing the power and influence of trade unions. She triumphed with her leadership skill, political stewardship, and team approach to make her legacy in history.

NFCR is at a critical juncture in its role as a cancer-related charity. Since 1973, with the grassroots support of millions of donors, it has spent more than $390 million funding innovative cancer research. This accomplishment has only been made possible with the grassroots support of donors who’ve responded to direct mail campaigns supporting our cancer research program. But the rising costs of paper, printing, and postage and the shrinking universe of the donors who would respond to direct mail campaigns are making it even more challenging to raise the support needed to continue our cancer research.

While NFCR has funded some incredibly innovative discoveries, which lead to new approaches to treating cancer, the level of funding required to invest in the stage where scientists can generate data to show proof of concept and value attract investors are scarce. Many discoveries are still idle in the laboratories. We must pivot our fundraising model and funding mechanism to transform our impactful cancer research and findings so that they can get to patient’s bedside faster, saving lives.

And that is why we launched AIM-HI Accelerator Fund, dedicated to advancing the lab discoveries into clinical stages with a focused approach and specialized expertise. Margaret Thatcher’s journey to transform Great Britain is an inspiration for me—she gives me the strength and aspiration to lead NFCR, AFCR, and AIM-HI to make an impact and save lives worldwide.