Alumni Spotlight: Dr. David Bearss, Chief Executive Officer, Tolero Pharmaceuticals and Chief Scientific Advisor, DSP Cancer Institute
When did you first become interested in science?
I was raised in a home with a father that was a Ph.D. chemist and I’ve always had a curious side that I was encouraged to pursue from a young age. I love learning about things I don’t understand or want to understand better. This curiosity gained direction and momentum the older I got and when I started doing real research in a chemistry laboratory as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, I knew that I wanted to be a research scientist.
Why did you pick The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and your program and what year did you graduate?
I graduated from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio with a Ph.D. in Cellular and Structural Biology in 1999.
UT Health San Antonio appealed to me for a few reasons. I applied to the program partly because my father’s family is from Fredericksburg, Texas and my wife and I thought it would be fun to live near them and get to know them better. When I came for an interview, I was very impressed by the department faculty and facilities but I ultimately decided to choose UT Health San Antonio because it was the only place from the programs I was choosing from where the faculty reached out to me several times after my interview and encouraged me to come to their program for my doctoral work. I was given the opportunity to do research in the laboratory of Edward Seto, Ph.D. where I participated in the cloning and characterizing HDAC2, a histone deacetylase and an YY1 interacting protein.
Additionally, in the laboratory of Jolene J. Windle, Ph.D., I studied the role of the cyclin dependent kinase inhibitor p21WAF1/CIP1 in the regulation of cell growth and apoptosis in transgenic and knockout mouse tumor models. These studies revealed a role for p21WAF1/CIP1 as both a positive and negative regulator of cell proliferation. These activities were also influenced by the expression of the oncogenes Ha-ras and c-myc. I used different transgenic and knockout mouse tumor models to evaluate the contributions of different genetic alterations to tumor response to treatment with conventional and novel anticancer agents. This is where I really got excited about the possibility of developing new treatments for patients with cancer.
Tell me more about your career path.
After graduating with my Ph.D., I did a short postdoctoral fellowship with Dan Von Hoff, M.D. at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center (Now UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center) and the Institute for Drug Development in San Antonio. Dr. Von Hoff then offered me a faculty position at the Arizona Cancer Center and the University of Arizona in Tucson where he took over as the Director of the Arizona Cancer Center. I focused my laboratory research on the discovery and development of novel anticancer agents and soon had a lab of nearly thirty students, post-docs and technicians performing both biology and chemistry research. We discovered several agents that we were excited about and that lead to the first company I founded called Montigen Pharmaceuticals in 2003. I made the hardest choice of my career to leave a tenure -track faculty position in Arizona and join Montigen and lead the development of the compounds we had discovered. 18 months later, Montigen was acquired by a publicly-traded biotech company in the San Francisco Bay Area called SuperGen and I became the Chief Scientific Officer of SuperGen. During the next few years, we took several novel anticancer agents into the clinic and I learned a lot about the clinical development of cancer drugs. SuperGen merged with a company called Astex and left to join a former colleague from the CTRC at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah as the co-director of the Center for Investigational Therapeutics and an associate professor in the Cancer Biology department. After a few years there, I started Tolero Pharmaceuticals and joined as the CEO of the company. In 2017, Tolero was acquired by Sumitomo Dianippon Pharma (DSP) of Japan, and I currently work as the CEO to Tolero and Chief Scientific Advisor for the DSP Cancer Institute (DCI).
Tell me about your current career, what do you do?
I lead the group at Tolero Pharmaceuticals as the CEO and I enjoy the chance oversee new programs enter and advance through clinical development. I am still involved daily in the research and discovery aspects, which is the best part of my job. I also oversee all departments and teams within the company to make sure we have the resources available to continue working toward a cure for cancer.
What is a day like in your job?
My days are full of meetings and calls with people representing all aspects of a clinical stage research company. We currently have seven clinical programs and we manage more than fifteen clinical trials many of which are international. I have a great deal of contact with our DSP colleagues in Japan which results in very early mornings and late nights. I work closely with all departments at Tolero which includes the R&D, Clinical, Biomarker, CMC and Finance teams. I’m ultimately responsible for the success of the company at every level and find enjoyment walking around the facility to make sure I’m in touch with the work everyone is doing.
Representing Tolero to outside collaborative opportunities is also a big part of my work. I present the Tolero story and pipeline to usually a company a week. My input with DCI allows me to listen to what others have created or discovered and lend my expertise and options on the direction of anti-cancer drugs in Japan.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Managing expectations will always be a challenge and seems to be an especially burdensome challenge working for a foreign entity. Research science often doesn’t fit well in timelines we expect, and we are always discovering new things which is exciting but also challenging as we have to be focused on development paths, especially in the clinic where costs are very high.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I’m consistently energized by science. That there is always something new to discover and understand in the human body will always pique my curiosity. When I need my internal batteries charged, I spend time in the laboratory where the science is exciting and new. The greatest feeling ever though is seeing something you discovered help patients and this is the best part of my work.
What has been your proudest achievement?
My wife, Tawnya, is my best friend and best supporter. Had I not married her, I without doubt would not have been able to accomplish what I’ve done. She understands my insatiable curiosity and need to discover and, in support, has taken on the demands of raising a family of six children. My greatest achievement is marrying her and raising our family.
How did the education you get at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio prepare you?
I was fortunate enough to work under and with some of the best scientific mentors I could have asked for. They prepared me for more than just laboratory discoveries; they taught me about patience, persistence and to trust my instincts and gave me incredible opportunities.
What are your favorite memories at UT Health San Antonio?
I loved the mentorship I received as a student. I felt that the Health Science Center was interested in my success not because it helped them but because it helped me and my goal to help patients.
What would you tell a current student interested in your career? Any advice for life in general?
The best advice I can give a student is to be passionate about what you do. Be all in in your studies and research.
What are some options that a graduate student can do to gain experience in your field now as a graduate student?
Graduate students should take advantage of relationships to get access to opportunities that will expose them to new things. What we ultimately end up doing is shaped by who we know and taking advantage of opportunities that are there for us. What you want to do is usually available if you can find the right person / company / school that supports you, so reach out to those you know, ask for introductions to those you want to know and be bold in meeting new people.
What do you like to do outside of work? Any hobbies?
I love spending time with my family – they provide me the grounding I need. Together, we find enjoyment in sports (tennis is a family favorite), musical theatre and movies. We spend time serving people in need, reminding ourselves because we have been given much, we also must give to those in need. And we like to travel together – it’s fun to explore new places and do new things.