July, 2024
July 2024
Oncothon: Pediatric Cancer Research with Cesare Spadoni
Jun 4, 2024, 13:28

Oncothon: Pediatric Cancer Research with Cesare Spadoni

Oncothon is a telethon spanning 24 hours, dedicated to gathering donations for childhood cancer research.


Cesare Spadoni holds an MSc in Applied Molecular Biology and a PhD in Neurosciences from UCL, University of London, along with an MBA from the Central European University in Budapest. Cesare began his career as a research scientist at Eisai in London and at the Institute of Enzymology in Budapest

With over 20 years of experience in drug development, spanning both scientific and commercial roles, he is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Oncoheroes Biosciences. Previously, he held senior positions at AMRI, Aptuit Laurus, ThalesNano, and Auxiliis BV. 

Following the death of his first daughter Laura to cancer, he founded the aPODD Foundation, a London-based charity dedicated to accelerating pediatric oncology drug development.


Gevorg Tamamyan is the Editor-in-chief of OncoDaily, Head of the Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Armenia, Chairman and Professor of the Department of Hematology and Pediatric Oncology at Yerevan State Medical University, CEO of the Immune Oncology Research Institute, President-Elect of the Pediatric Oncology East and Mediterranean (POEM) Group. He is also the Adviser to the Rector of YSMU and to the Director of the Yeolyan Hematology and Oncology Center.

He is a Co-Founder and Board Member of the Armenian Association of Hematology and Oncology, City of Smile Charitable Foundation, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Cancer and Crisis, the Former President of the Harvard Club of Armenia.

Recently Dr. Tamamyan has been selected as the President-Elect for SIOP Asia 2024.

00:00 Introduction
3:10 Cesare Spadoni’s personal journey in pediatric oncology
21:49 Words for kids with cancer and for their families

The transcript of Oncothon: Pediatric Cancer Reasearch with Cesare Spadoni

Gevorg Tamamyan: Welcome back again to our global Oncothon. We started already, it’s 4 hours we are live, and we have another 20 hours to go. Today is the International Childhood Cancer Day,  as everyone knows, and all over the world, we are united in the fight against cancer.

Today, during the first global Oncothon by OncoDaily, we will be hosting individuals from all over the world who are involved in childhood cancer, this fight. Families, scientists, doctors, healthcare professionals, foundations, everyone. And we are going to have our next guest now, and I’m privileged and honored to present him. He is already here, Cesare Spadoni.

Cesare Spadoni: Hello, can you hear me well?

Gevorg Tamamyan: Very well. Hi, Cesare.

Cesare Spadoni: Okay, okay, that’s good. So I had some sort of technical challenges, but I could connect with the phone as long as you hear me well, because I cannot hear you too well.

Gevorg Tamamyan: We hear you very well.

Cesare Spadoni: Okay, okay, that’s good. Well, thanks Gevorg, and it’s really great for me to be here. And I just connected now, so I don’t know whether you wanted me to introduce myself. But  what I thought is that I would give a sort of introduction of myself and explain my journey into the world of pediatric oncology, to explain how I got here and tell you more about the activities that I’ve been doing together with my business partner and my colleagues and why I think it’s important to have this call today and raise awareness for pediatric cancer.

Gevorg Tamamyan: Thank you, Cesare. I was going to introduce you, but I think… I’m sure you will do it much better. Just a few words. Cesare is one of two visionary leaders behind OncoHeroes Biosciences, a great person who put his efforts to make this wonderful organization  reality. And further, I’ll leave it to you, the floor, that you present your story. Go ahead, Cesare, please.

Cesare Spadoni: Yeah, thanks, Gevorg. So I guess my story is similar to other stories we hear every day. Parents, that become involved with medical research because of the diseases that are affecting their children. In my case, I like to say that it’s actually happened the other way around, because I’ve been working in medical research and drug development all my professional life. I’m a scientist by training. I’m a PhD scientist with a molecular biology and cell biology background.

I started my career actually in the pharmaceutical industry as a drug discovery scientist for a pharma company for a number of years, and then I transitioned to business development positions within the pharma and biotech industry. So that’s really my professional life, how to develop drugs for various diseases, even though I have to say my background was not in oncology.

I was a neuroscientist. And then one day I became a parent, so to speak. Not because I had children, because I heard those terrible words, that your child has cancer.

So my daughter was diagnosed with cancer at the age of four. And that was really the moment when I entered the arena of pediatric oncology. And sadly, my daughter passed away a year later in 2006. And that was really the turning point in my life when I decided what I wanted to do. And as many parents do, they want to do something to bring meaning to what happened to them.

They want to do something for other children. Or there are some parents actually simply want to forget about everything and try to go on with their lives. But because of my background in science, in drug development, for me there was no choice.

So I wanted to do something to improve the outcome for children with cancer. So I wanted to do something to accelerate the development of better drugs for kids. So that’s what I know. That’s my trade. That’s what I know how to do it. And I really wanted to work in this field. And so I didn’t jump immediately into any activity of this sort.

And I wanted to think about it carefully. But really, I wanted to work in this field. And because I work in drug development, I had sort of ideas. I had models. I could see what other patient’s organizations did for other diseases. And I was particularly interested by sort of the area, the general area of rare diseases or from drugs. You know, how you develop drugs for diseases that are rare, so they don’t attract really the interest of big pharma companies.

And so that was really an area where I became interested in. I’m sure other people said already during this call, during this Oncothon, clearly there’s an unmet medical need for better drugs for kids with cancer. It’s an area which is largely neglected by the pharma industry for various reasons.

I don’t want to get into the details right now. And so the idea is really how do we stimulate the development of better drugs for kids? Because clearly this is an area… For example, my daughter (I’m sure other people said this before) was treated with drugs that were approved 40, 50 years ago, with chemotherapy drugs.

There was nothing really innovative. I have to say it was also 2005 when my daughter was diagnosed. And clearly at that time, we didn’t have sort of next-generation sequencing fully developed as a technology. We didn’t have the capability to really dive deeper into the tumor and analyze all the molecular biomarkers.

So things were really limited. And so when you find yourself in this situation, you really find the limitations, you really understand exactly what patients need, what would be helpful. In the case of my daughter, just to maybe talk a bit more about my personal experience, rather than the business, it was really a tough situation because we didn’t really, the doctors that were treating her were not even sure about the diagnosis.

So we consulted different hospitals. And so we got to the point where we had four different opinions from four different hospitals, and we had three different diagnoses. So basically, people asked me today, what was the tumor, the cancer that my daughter had? I can’t really give an answer because really we don’t know.

So probably today we’ll be able to characterize the tumor in terms of molecular biomarkers, genetic makeup, but at that time was not really possible. I remember we were discussing also with the physicians, with the pediatric oncologist who were treating my daughter, because they knew that I was a scientist.

We were really looking for ideas together. That was really heartwarming in a way. So the doctors would sit alongside me. I remember some cases where we were browsing PubMed, looking for ideas, on the basis of what we knew about my daughter and we basically tried a few options, but then it turned out there were really palliative options, because we didn’t really have good tools to identify, to characterize further the tumor that my daughter had.

And then in the end, what it proved ineffective. But that’s, again, just to stress the fact that, you know, pediatric oncologists are doing a wonderful job at treating kids. And I think I have to say, within the tragedy, and it’s very difficult really to find positive things, but one of the things that I keep saying to everybody, one of the positive things of my experience is that I really discovered the world of pediatric oncology in terms of the exceptional work that the pediatric oncology community is doing to treating kids.

So we achieved great success. We improved survival rates. But then it’s clear that for some cancer, we haven’t seen any substantial improvement over the past decades.

And, I mean, Gevorg, you are a pediatric oncologist. You know, you can do the best you can do. You’re doing your best. But at the end of the day, if we want to save more kids, we want to save more lives, we need to have available better drugs because we kind of keep doing, you can achieve, you achieve the maximum of what you have, but then in the end, you need better treatments, better therapeutic options.

We see new treatments being developed for other diseases, but this is really lacking in the world of pediatric oncology. And so this is really started, you know, the whole thinking for me around this.

And so on the basis of my experience, what can I do to accelerate this? And one idea was really ingrained into my brain, you know, the idea, the concept of venture philanthropy. So I was working for a company at that time that we had a big collaboration with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in the U.S. I’m sure you’re familiar with this.

So this is a big foundation, non-profit foundation in the U.S. And then at some point they decided really they wanted to have, to take a lead in drug development and they started collaborating with biotech companies, pharma companies.

That was really the turning point for cystic fibrosis patients, but really they could really accelerate so many programs that eventually led to the approval of a new drug after decades of lack of new treatments. And that was really the model that I wanted to apply to pediatric oncology.

A world where, you know, already, you know, there are some big clinical networks in Europe and the U.S. There’s a lot of science being developed, you know, this kind of overlap with adult science, many compounds in development.

And can we really galvanize the non-profit world and, you know, persuade the non-profit world to actually get involved with drug development? Because again, one point is that we tend to think that research is important. Absolutely, research is definitely important.

We need more science. We need more scientific research. But we need to bear in mind that at the end of the day, whether we like it or not, drugs are developed by biotech companies and pharma companies.

And so these are the entities that actually go through clinical trials and that bring the drugs to the regulator and, you know, get the drugs approved for use and commercialize that. So at the end of the day, we can do all the science we want to do, generate all the beautiful papers. But at the end of the day, people like you, Gevorg, need medicine that you can give to patients.

And then you need people to manufacture this drug and get them delivered to the patients that need them. So essentially, that was really my idea. And then in my journey, I set up a foundation in the UK, which is called APOD.

APOD is a funny acronym I came up with. It means Accelerated Pediatric Oncology Drug Development. And its foundation is based in London.

And really, the idea was really to act as a catalyst for the sort of non-profit pediatric oncology world and really try to create a critical mass and get other foundations to join forces and start funding essentially clinical development programs, pediatric oncology drug development programs, and really advance treatments that otherwise wouldn’t be funded by other pharma industry or other foundations.

But really for this, it was critical to work with biotech companies because research labs, academic labs, on their own, they don’t really have the capabilities, the expertise to advance new treatments. So drug development really goes beyond generating data in the lab, but it has sort of commercial implications and regulatory implications.There’s manufacturing involved. 

And so I started to work to dedicate time to this foundation. We’ve done interesting projects, but then I kind of found myself in a situation where I couldn’t really change things.

So there was sort of a status quo within the non-profit industry. And I’m not getting too much into details, because I probably would need to organize another Oncoton. I probably need more than 24 hours to go through all the challenges within the non-profit world.

That’s for another time. But clearly there are challenges and there are ways there’s sort of inertia within the non-profit world, that really prevented me from really achieving what I wanted to achieve.

So while I’m still connected with, still active in the foundation, it’s sort of pro bono capacity.I’m the chairman of this foundation. We actually do interesting projects in the drug repurposing space. So the idea of finding new uses for existing drugs, looking for generic compounds that could be repurposed to pediatric oncology.

But really what we could do as a foundation is really limited. So that’s why a few years ago, I started to think that while I think that the venture philanthropy model is really the good model, the right model, probably I should move more towards the venture side of the equations.

So go where the money is and try and set up possibly a for-profit company, where basically we could really be the driver instead of being a foundation that is looking for biotech companies really willing to drive pediatric oncology, drive development.

Maybe the answer was to set up that specific biotech company and really be the main driver in this field. And so I started to work on this idea. And a few years ago, I was almost six years ago, I think.Yes, well, more than six years ago, I met Riccardo who was online before. I’m sure he told a similar story, I hope. I was not online, so he could have said anything bad about me.

But anyway, so we met a few years ago and there was really a connection. So he had similar thoughts, similar plans, and we decided to join forces and come together and set up Horizontal Heroes Biosciences, which I’m sure we’ll have the chance to discuss later. But it was really an exciting project and sort of really happy that we could meet.

And you see a Spanish and Italian meetings, it could be an explosive cocktail. But I think we’ve been working well together and so we got other people on board. Some of them already behind this Oncothon, so working very hard to make this work.

And really we started to interact with the pediatric oncology community. I guess we will have time later to discuss about Oncoheroes, what we are doing. But the thing was really, if I had to summarize my journey, it’s really a journey that started from a sort of personal tragedy, but really a journey that really, how can I say, consolidated and reinforced in my mind the need for better treatments for children with cancer.

And I really wanted to apply not only my passion as a parent, my motivation, somebody who lost his daughter, but also my knowledge, my expertise and my willingness to know more.

Because in this field, you never reach your definitive knowledge. It’s always, as a scientist, we know that we have to keep improving, we have to keep studying.

The more we know, the more questions we face and that’s really the reality. And it’s really exciting to really build our community, get in touch with people throughout the world that share the same passion. And that’s really what we’ve been doing over the past few years, really connecting with the pediatric oncology community and do whatever we can, to accelerate the rate of drug development and facilitate the starting of clinical trials.

We can do it in our own way with Oncoheroes, but also with my foundation. So really about generating knowledge that could be used to start clinical trials. That’s pretty much my story. That was a long introduction, if that was an introduction, but that’s me.

I don’t know, Gevorg, if you have some sort of thoughts or questions or I don’t know. I’m just mindful of the time as well. 

Gevorg Tamamyan: Yes, thank you very much, Cesare.

I mean, first of all, let me thank you for what you are doing. As a pediatric oncologist, I would like to thank you for what you are doing, first of all. And I mean, our team is really honored to stand with you for the cause what you are fighting for right now.

It’s really an honor for us, both at OncoDaily and the whole our team. And because, I mean, very few people after the tragedy would find themselves, would find the strength themselves to make these kind of efforts for the other kids. You were right.

I mean, as an oncologist, we need better drugs. I mean, we are not able to cure with hands. It’s like we need drugs to deliver them to the kids.

And alone, pediatric oncologists or scientists in the lab, they won’t be able to make this a reality. And here where the, like, where your company, your organization, and the people you, got together are coming in. We will talk about Oncoheroes Biosciences a lot today, but we have a little bit of time before the next session.

I would like to ask you for the International Childhood Cancer Day. Right now, all over the world, there are hundreds of thousands of kids battling cancer, and their families along with them, and the medical staff, healthcare professionals, and the foundations, and everyone trying to make it a reality.

But first of all, I would like to ask you to give a few words to those kids and families right now who are in this battle. I think your words will be very important for everyone.

Cesare Spadoni: Yeah, well, that’s a tough question. That’s a tough question. So, of course, I found myself in this situation, and I really, one thing I have to say is really coming from my personal experience, you know, and then, how do I put it? So, basically, you find yourself in a situation that’s really tragic, but somehow, you find the strength to go on.

It’s something I can’t really explain. If I had to think about when I was, before this happened to me, I could see other families really being badly hit, not necessarily by cancer, but other sort of diseases, having their children battling horrible, horrible diseases or any sort of life event really affecting them.

I felt very sorry for them, and I always thought to myself, okay, how could I do this? And I have to say, when you find yourself in a situation, you find an inner strength to go on, and something I cannot really explain.

And, again, probably we need another oncothon to elaborate on this, but I think this is really the message I would like to tell all the families that are really fighting this fight right now. Really, you know, to embrace this strength they find in themselves, and don’t be afraid to look for help.

Don’t be afraid to turn to people that can help you. In my view, every little thing helps, and sometimes, you know, just a word, sometimes a complete stranger saying the right word, what you want to hear. Don’t really turn to friends, and people can help you. 

And really understand that there are people out there really working really, really hard to solve the problem. And I think we need to be honest. It’s not a problem that we can solve tomorrow.

We cannot really say from tomorrow there will be a new treatment, there will be a new drug. But there are people, well, I know what I’m doing, I think all my colleagues, but I can say the same for you, Gevorg, and your colleagues. There are people really working very, very hard.

And so they have the top priority is really to make things better. Somebody asked me once, there was one at the meeting, you know, what keeps you up at night? Pretty much this is what keeps me up at night. What really, what can I do? Can I do better? Can I do something different? Not necessarily better, something different, you know, to accelerate the development of better drugs, and help children.

And this is really all I can say is that find, embrace the strength you find in yourself, and be comforted by the fact that there are people really working really, really hard.

And if it makes you feel better, maybe, you know, start thinking about what can I do to help this fight? You know, are there any things that I can do to help this fight? And of course, as we all know, we need money, we need resources. Sometimes just, you know, helping spreading awareness of the problem, talk to people.

And, you know, just help really build the community, and get people. You know, one of the things that, you know, people always say, working in the rare disease space, one of the first things you have to do is really find the patients, get the patients together.

Get families really touched by childhood cancer, should find that the families should get together, create a community, share experiences.

These are things that, you know, may seem small in the face of, you know, the danger of the tragedy of the disease, but really can have a huge effect. So that’s what something that I would really urge other families to do throughout the world. 

Gevorg Tamamyan: Thank you so much, Cesare.Thank you very much for everything. And I think we’re going to meet again today. 

Cesare Spadoni: I guess so. It’s going to be a long day.

Gevorg Tamamyan: Yeah. See you soon.Thank you very much. And the other session is going to continue now.