Inside the Patient Entrepreneur’s Mind: Ira Spector, PhD

Ira Spector Blog

Managing a chronic illness is challenging, whether it is your own or a loved one’s. Starting and running a business also poses unique challenges. If you struggle with a chronic illness, have started a business, or want to start a business, this blog series can help guide you. “Inside the Patient Entrepreneur’s Mind” offers key insights into chronic disease and mission-driven entrepreneurship by some of the most innovative patient entrepreneurs in the world. 

Ira Spector, PhD is CEO & Co-Founder of SFA Therapeutics. He is also a finalist of the 2019 Lyfebulb-Helsinn Innovation Summit & Award in cancer.

As a patient entrepreneur, can you describe your personal experience with cancer and how this experience drove you to innovate the space?

I had two parathyroid tumors removed in 2013 and I was very lucky that they were both caught early and localized. The only problem I had was a sequela of cancer treatment, because there is almost always other damage that occurs. For me, my body was overproducing calcium after cancer treatment so I have calcium deposits in all of my joints as well as my heart valve that required a lot of follow up cardiac care. In my case, I feel lucky that my tumors were caught early. Unfortunately, I have a lot of other personal connections to cancer and other illnesses that resulted differently than my case. My mother and father both had cancer, we lost my father-in-law to colon cancer and my brother-in-law to what we think was glioblastoma. I was also heavily influenced growing up with a seriously ill sibling in terms of guiding me to do what I do now. I’m fairly unique because I am in the drug development industry.  In terms of cancer, specifically, when I found the technology that was the basis for SFA, it was supposed to start as an anti-inflammatory platform. Almost  by happenstance, after looking at the pathways downregulated by this anti-inflammatory platform, I found them to also be oncogenes. When I discovered the downregulating effect of this anti-inflammatory platform on certain oncogenes, I learned that there were other cancers with an inflammatory component that we could go after with this therapy. 

What makes SFA Therapeutics unique and how does it meet an unmet need of the cancer community?

Cancer patients live the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder waiting for the cancer to come back—we think our drugs are the metaphorical umbrella to prevent recurrence. Other than addressing environmental factors like smoking, cancer prevention doesn’t get a lot of attention on the Big Pharma or development side. What we’re saying is wait a second, there are millions of people who have already been treated and now they are just living in fear—what about them! We think we have an approach to reach this community of people. With the exception of certain type of breast cancer, there are very few cancers where other drugs are used to prevent relapse recurrence. At least in terms of CLL and ALL, the path to reduce recurrence comes from this drug we are developing at SFA. We think there is a whole generation of drugs that are very safe and non-chemotoxic to help prevent relapse.

Traditional treatment of cancer has been based on the theory that cancer cells grow more rapidly than normal cells. Agents like chemotherapy or radiation have been used to kill those cells, while also killing healthy cells in the process, to reduce the cancer burden. Our thesis differs in that we believe certain cancers have an inflammatory component and there is a way to control that inflammatory response in the cell. Our drugs are designed to prevent recurrence of tumors by reducing chronic inflammation.

Are there any other unmet needs of the cancer community that you think take priority in working to address? How are patient entrepreneurs well-suited to meet these needs?

Cancer is all too often treated with the ‘let’s just get it out’ mentality and we need a more integrative approach involving the family and disease experience. There are others working on this too, and although we have to be focused with resources, we recognize that there clearly needs to be an integrated approach that improves cancer aftercare. Although we are focused on drug development at SFA, we as Patient Entrepreneurs recognize the general needs of the community are huge. There is a lot of stigma and psychology that could be addressed here. I have a tremendous sensitivity to the broader issues here and I recognize that is also not a very well met need societally. 

Where do you draw your inspiration and motivation from to keep forging ahead as an entrepreneur in the healthcare industry?

Patients. I’m an industry veteran involved in household name drugs. That being said, I get up every morning thinking about patients who haven’t been treated and patients who could’ve been treated by drugs that failed. The inspiration comes from the fact that we are not done and there is still a lot left to do. I know that has become my mantra now in the industry, but it has always been my driver. Getting out of the lab or business setting and going out into the field to talk to physicians, patients, and families—that’s why we are here. Almost everyone who gets into this have personal connections—both of my co-founders have personal connections. It’s just that simple. Pharma and biotech are rated the lowest of the low in public opinion polls, even though most of us who work in this industry are trying to change the world. Despite making a fair amount of progress, we are all vilified based on perceptions about things like costs and the opioid epidemic. We just soldier on regardless of the public opinion in the hopes of changing public understanding of how hard we work to help patients. 

Lastly, what do you do for fun to manage the stress of running a business as both a cancer survivor and an entrepreneur? Do you have any similar advice on work-life-disease management balance to others out there thinking of starting a business to meet an unmet need of a chronic disease patient community?

There are two activities that I engage in. In the summer, we move to the beach so I average 3-4 miles per day walking on the beach. I’m also an active swimmer. However, my other big passion is restoring antique cars. The goal isn’t to finish, but to just decouple by putting on the stereo (I’ve worked on a car for 5 years). On a bad day, if I can’t get anything done on a car because of the calcium deposits in my hands, I walk away and do something else like walk or swim. My advice to other budding patient entrepreneurs is that you need to have activities that totally decouple from what you’re doing and enable you to have a recreation that clears your mind. Do something completely different in order to unplug. You just need to have something, whether it’s music or sports, to decouple from the stress of the day.

Ira Spector Car Restoration

Study on Ava’s fertility-tracking wearable shows correlation between resting pulse rate and onset of fertility

It may not seem like a big change, but an extra two beats per minute in resting pulse rate could mean the difference between getting pregnant or not. This clue into fertility windows have led researchers at the University of Zurich to suggest the wearable fertility trackers from San Francisco and Zurich-based Ava could be a value tool for couples looking to conceive.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports (part of Nature Publishing Group), represents a new validation point for the Ava bracelet, which uses sensors to record nine physiological factors that correspond to a rise in hormones that indicate the onset of ovulation. While previous research – conducted shortly after the company’s launch in July 2016 – showed the Ava bracelet detecting an average of 5.3 fertile days per cycle with 89 percent accuracy, this trial gives a strong case that a resting pulse rate can be used to identify the window of fertility in near-real time.

“What many women and their partners don’t realize is that a woman can only get pregnant five days before ovulation and the day of ovulation itself,” lead researcher Dr. Brigitte…

Molecular Mechanism Shoots Drugs When Specific Antibody Detected

Researchers from the University of Montreal, Canada and University of Rome Tor Vergata, Italy have developed a molecular “slingshot” capable of firing a drug into the nearby environment when triggered by a biochemical marker. The slingshot is actually a helix of synthetic DNA the ends of which are designed to stick to a particular antibody. When both ends of the slingshot grab onto the antibody being targeted, the structure…

Swearing Can Improve Your Strength & Stamina During A Workout, According To A New Study

Want to up your gym game? Try letting a few obscenities fly. A new study from the U.K. finds that swearing can significantly improve muscle strength and stamina. Researchers at the University of Keele in the U.K. conducted tests where some participants were asked to swear during either an intense cycling workout, or while squeezing a device that measures hand grip strength. In both cases, those who swore saw significant improvements in performance compared to those who had used “neutral” words.

In the first experiment, 29 volunteers with an average age of 21 were asked to pedal as hard as they could on a stationary bike for 30 seconds while repeatedly saying a swear word or a neutral word. Those who cursed their way through the short, intense workout increased their peak power by an average of 24 watts. In the second, 52 participants of a similar age were asked to squeeze a hand grip device for 10 seconds; the potty mouths increased their hand strength by 2.1 kilograms. In both experiments, volunteers were asked to repeat the swear words in a calm,…

Stung by opioid crisis, doc warns European counterparts while researcher develops possible solution


Don’t make the same mistake we did.

That’s the message of Dr. David Ring, a hand surgeon and chair of the committee of patient safety at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, to doctors across the pond. On Wednesday, Ring was joined by Dr. Sommer Hammound, a lead author on a study about orthopedic pain management and opioid use being presented at the annual meeting of AAOS in San Diego this week.

Orthopedic surgeons are the third-highest prescribers of opioids, Hammound pointed out from a specialty standpoint indicating that it is incumbent that they understand their risks and look for alternatives. One such alternative may be on the horizon if a Mass General researcher is successful.

Based on the opioid study, Hammound concluded that multimodal medications and surgery pretreatment plans should be explored before going the narcotic route. Ring laid the phenomenon of rampant opioid prescription at the feet of the pharma industry.

“Why were we using so many opioids – why were we emphasizing opioids in our pain regimen,” Ring asked. “It’s because the pharmaceutical industry was really pushing it.”

He acknowledged a level of complicity by noting that surgeons didn’t want to receive calls on the weekend from angry patients unhappy with the pain they were in and ended up ordering narcotics for them.

“The culture became, ‘We undertreat pain. Who wants to be a bad person like that, and the way to treat pain is opioids,” Ring said describing the rationale for opioid prescriptions.

But it’s also ironic that “opioids are not great pain relievers,” he declared. He noted how overseas physicians are cautious about prescribing these addictive drugs. In places like Chile, they use Tylenol to manage pain from orthopedic procedures, for instance.

“Keep in mind that that most of the world does the same operations that we do … and uses minimal opioids,” Ring said.

The pharma industry has been less aggressive in marketing these drugs in places like Chile because of the culture of how pain is managed, he said, but across the Atlantic it’s a different story.

“If you look at Europe they are starting to use more and more opioids and it’s…

A Shocking Number Of Deaths May Be Due To Poor Diet

Nearly half of all deaths from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes may be due to diet, a new study finds.

In 2012, 45 percent of deaths from “cardiometabolic disease” — which includes heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes — were attributable to the foods people ate, according to the study.

This conclusion came from a model that the researchers developed that incorporated data from several sources: The National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, which are annual government surveys that provide information on people’s dietary intakes; the National Center for Health Statistics, for data on how many people died of certain diseases in a year; and findings from studies and clinical trials linking diet and disease. [7 Foods Your Heart Will Hate]

The researchers found that, in 2012, just over 700,000 people died from a cardiometabolic disease. Of these deaths, nearly 320,000 — or about 45 percent — could be linked to people’s diets, according to the study, published today (March 7) in the journal JAMA.

The estimated number of deaths that were linked to not getting enough of certain healthier foods and nutrients was as least as substantial as the number of deaths that were linked to eating too much of certain unhealthy foods, according to the researchers, who were led by Renata Micha, a research assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Tufts University in Boston.

In other words, Americans need to do both: Eat more healthy foods, and less unhealthy food.

The researchers focused their analysis on 10 food groups and nutrients: fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, unprocessed red meat, processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fats from seafood, and salt, according to the study.

For each food or nutrient, the researchers identified an “optimal intake” amount. When people ate more…

Improved primary care may help reduce hospital readmissions for diabetes patients

PEOPLE who regularly visit their family doctor following discharge for a diabetes-related hospitalisation significantly reduce their chance of being readmitted, an Australian study has found

Researchers at the University of South Australia have discovered that more than 40 per cent of hospital readmissions for people living with diabetes are preventable if appropriate primary care is provided.

The study, published today, included 848 patients between the ages of 76-89 years old who had a diabetes hospitalization in 2012 and of these 209 were re-hospitalised within 30 days.

Lead Researcher and Senior Research Fellow in the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences Gillian Caughey said although the study was centred around the Australian population, its results were applicable for older patients with diabetes worldwide.

She said diabetes patients who visited a General Practitioner or had increased primary care following hospitalisation would reduce the likelihood of a re-admission, which would in turn reduce hospital inpatient care costs.

“This study highlights the need for improved continuity of care during the transition between hospital and primary care, which includes discharge planning and communication with the patient’s GP,” she said.

“Readmission has a significant effect on patients’ overall wellbeing and morbidity, and places considerable strain on the healthcare system.

“The identification of these at-risk patients may also help care providers to target appropriate interventions for preventing these re-admissions.”

Dr Caughey said post-discharge support visits had also been shown to reduce re-admission rates in the general older population.

She said this…

Researchers investigate new treatment options for gestational diabetes

A team of Israeli researchers have studied the use of metformin and glyburide in the treatment of gestational diabetes.

Glyburide, also known as glibenclamide in the UK, is a second-generation sulphonylurea used in the treatment of non-insulin dependent type 2 diabetes. It lowers blood sugars by stimulating the release of insulin from the pancreas.

The standard therapy for women with gestational diabetes in the UK, as provided in the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) treatment guidelines, does not involve glibenclamide in first instance.

Women requiring drug treatment are pointed towards metformin, with or without the addition of insulin, as a first line treatment instead. Since 2015, NICE allows the use of glibenclamide as an alternative to metformin in some circumstances.

While the use of glibenclamide is considered as an adjunct therapy in NICE guidance, its use as first option in gestational diabetes with or without metformin is more prevalent – notably overseas.

Previous research suggested that the combination of glibenclamide and metformin might have a synergestic effect, since both medications act to improve blood sugars by different but complementary mechanisms.

In this new study of 100+ women with gestational diabetes, researchers compared the risks and benefits of glibenclamide and metformin as single therapies on the one hand, and in combination on the other hand. Insulin was also added in some cases.

In terms of improvements to blood glucose control, they found glibenclamide to be inferior to both insulin (when required) and metformin. This confirms what was previously found in a 2015 meta-analysis published in the BMJ, which reported that metformin tends to perform better.

Researchers did however note that using glibenclamide in combination with metformin reduced the need for insulin.

No adverse fetal outcomes, such as higher macrosomia (larger than normal birth weight) risks or neonatal hypoglycemia, were reported.

Overall, the findings indicate that a monotherapy with glibenclamide should not be used for the treatment of women with gestational diabetes if insulin or metformin is available.

But, glibenclamide could allow a higher efficacy rate when coupled with insulin in women who can’t achieve blood glucose targets and/or cannot tolerate metformin.


Type 2 diabetes is one of the most common long-term health conditions
Type 2 diabetes is one of the most common long-term health conditions

Type 2 diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder that results in hyperglycemia (high blood glucose levels) due to the body:

  • Being ineffective at using the insulin it has produced; also known as insulin resistance and/or
  • Being unable to produce enough insulin

Type 2 diabetes is characterised by the body being unable to metabolise glucose (a simple sugar). This leads to high levels of blood glucose which over time may damage the organs of the body.

From this, it can be understood that for someone with diabetes something that is food for ordinary people can become a sort of metabolic poison.

This is why people with diabetes are advised to avoid sources of dietary sugar.

The good news is for very many people with type 2 diabetes this is all they have to do to stay well. If you can keep your blood sugar lower by avoiding dietary sugar, likely you will never need long-term medication.

Type 2 diabetes was formerly known as non-insulin-dependent or adult-onset diabetes due to its occurrence mainly in people over 40. However, type 2 diabetes is now becoming more common in young adults, teens and children and accounts for roughly 90% of all diabetes cases worldwide.

How serious is type 2 diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes is a serious medical condition that often requires the use of anti-diabetic medication, or insulin to keep blood sugar levels under control. However, the development of type 2 diabetes and its side effects (complications) can be prevented if detected and treated at an early stage.

In recent years, it has become apparent that many people with type 2 diabetes are able to reverse diabetes through methods including low-carb diets, very-low-calorie diets and exercise.

For guidance on healthy eating to improve blood glucose levels and weight and to fight back against insulin resistance, join the Low Carb Program.

Following pre-diabetes or metabolic disorder, type 2 diabetes can potentially be avoided through diet and exercise.

What causes type 2 diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the hormone insulin is not used effectively by the cells in your body. Insulin is needed for cells to take in glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream and convert it into energy.

Ineffective use of insulin results in the body becoming resistant to insulin – also known as insulin resistance, which in turn causes blood sugar levels to rise (hyperglycemia).

In advanced stages, type 2 diabetes may cause damage to insulin producing cells in the pancreas, leading to insufficient insulin production for your body’s needs.


Researchers aim to develop sustained and controllable insulin release system for treatment of diabetes

The prevalence of diabetes has grown around the world over the past three decades. In 2016, the World Health Organization estimated that 422 million people had the disease as the rate of obesity also increased. Aside from proper diet and exercise, the best treatment for diabetes is the delivery of insulin into the body that is both controllable and sustainable over time to manage blood glucose levels. Working toward the development of a better insulin delivery system, a research group from Kumamoto University in Japan has been experimenting with polyethylene glycol (PEG) modification (PEGylation) of protein drugs through a host-guest interaction between cyclodextrin (CyD) and adamantane to improve the stability and lifetime of insulin, calling the results of their work “SPRA technology”. Their current research focuses on combining SPRA technology with another development of their own that allows for better control of insulin release, “polypseudorotaxane (PPRX) technology”. Their goal in combining the two technologies was to develop a sustained and controllable insulin release system.

Using mono- or multi-SPRA-insulin solutions and alpha- or…

To fight diabetes in Hampton Roads, prevention is key

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

Nurse Diabetic A1c Diabetes Test
In 1980, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the U.S. had 5.53 million people with diabetes; by 2014, the U.S. had 21.95 million diabetics. (File photo)

More people die of diabetes every year than previously thought, a recent study found.

According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University, diabetes leads to 12 percent of deaths in the United States, a higher percentage than previous research indicated.

The same study, which was published in the journal “PLOS ONE,” also found diabetics have 90 percent higher death rates than non-diabetics.

“It’s a hard, hard thing when someone tells you that you have the diagnosis of diabetes,” said Dr. Amna Feroze, who specializes in family medicine and practices at Sentara Family Medicine & Internal Medicine Physicians in Williamsburg. “It’s very saddening. But, to tell you the truth, there’s so many ways to catch it before it happens.”

Diabetes is a serious public health issue in part because it contributes to a number of other conditions, including hypertension, chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, depression, sleep disorders and cancer, according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.

It is also serious because it is widespread. In 1980, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the U.S. had 5.53 million people with diabetes; by 2014, the U.S. had 21.95 million diabetics, almost a 300 percent increase, the study said.

Yet even as people develop conditions such as prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes (which affects 90…

Almonds may boost cardiovascular health in diabetic Indians

18 almonds
Researchers attribute this higher and earlier incidence of type 2 diabetes in part to the “South Asian phenotype,” a genetic predisposition that makes Indians more susceptible to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. (Source: File Photo)

Including almonds in the diet may significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases in Indians with type 2 diabetes and improve their general health, a first-of-its-kind study released today here claims. Almond consumption as part of a healthy diet may help improve glycemic and cardiovascular measures and lead to better health in type 2 diabetes patients, researchers said.

“India is known as the diabetes capital of the world, with the incidence of type 2 diabetes currently reaching epidemic proportions,” researchers wrote in the study published in the journal Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders. Once deemed a disease of the affluent, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes now cuts across all social, demographic and age groups, they said.

They attribute this higher and earlier incidence of type 2 diabetes in part to the “South Asian phenotype,” a genetic
predisposition that…

Spatial structure of amyloid fibrils linked to Parkinson’s disease highly dependent on salt concentration

By combining two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy and atomic force microscopy, Amsterdam researchers have established that the spatial structure of amyloid fibrils related to Parkinson’s disease is highly dependent on salt concentration during protein aggregation. The results, published recently in Nature’s open access journal ‘Scientific Reports’, can contribute to an explanation of observed differences in fibril-related pathologies.

The research was carried out by PhD students Steven Roeters (Van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences, UvA, under the supervision of Prof. Sander Woutersen ) and Aditya Iyer (AMOLF, under the supervision of Prof. Vinod Subramaniam, VU). They studied the aggregation of the intrinsically disordered protein alpha-synuclein (αS) into amyloid fibrils, a process known to be involved in neuronal cell death in Parkinson’s disease. Using a combination of techniques, among which atomic force microscopy, UV-circular dichroism CD, X-ray diffraction and sophisticated…

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