Cancer survivor becomes a cancer fighter at a Philly start-up

Debra Travers, CEO of PolyAurum LLC, at the Nanomedicine and Molecular Imaging Lab at Penn Medicine. PolyAurum, a Penn-affiliated start-up, aims to enhance the effects of radiation treatment by injecting gold into tumors.

What Debra Travers really wanted to be was a marine biologist, until “I found out Jacques Cousteau wasn’t hiring.”

How she wound up as chief executive of PolyAurum LLC, a Philadelphia start-up developing biodegradable gold nanoparticles for treating cancerous tumors, involved a professional journey of more than 30 years in pharmaceutical and diagnostics industries, and a personal battle with the disease she’s now in business to defeat.

After determining that studying sea creatures was not a viable career choice, Travers — a military kid from all over — switched her major at Cedar Crest College in Allentown to medical technology. She graduated in 1979, then worked for three years in a hospital laboratory until she concluded she didn’t like shift work and “could do more.”

What followed was an impressive career progression: Travers started as a chemistry technician at DuPont Biomedical Products Division, advancing to executive positions in marketing and product development at Centocor, GlaxoSmithKline, Endo Pharmaceuticals, and IMS Health.

Much of that work involved bringing new products through the long development and regulation-heavy process from concept to launch, with experience in therapeutic areas including oncology, urology, pain medicine, cardiology, and rheumatology. In an industry of specialty silos, Travers developed a uniquely blended expertise in marketing and R&D.

It was on March 23, 2006, that her health-care vocation turned personal: Travers, then a 50-year-old mother of two, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

An oncologist recommended a double mastectomy, removal of both ovaries, and chemotherapy. The tearful pleadings of her daughter, Kelly, then 18 — “I need you here when I graduate college, when I get married, when I have kids” — persuaded Travers to follow that recommendation.

She returned to work at Endo for seven more years, as a director in project management, before being laid off in June 2013, one month before her daughter’s wedding. The break gave Travers time to concentrate on the big event and to start “to think what I’d like to do when I grow up.”

That process would lead her in late 2015 to PolyAurum, a start-up spun out of the University of Pennsylvania.

“I became a CEO and a grandmother in the same year,” said Travers, now 61, chuckling during a recent interview at the Pennovation Center incubator in West Philadelphia. From there, her home in Delaware, and the sites of pitch opportunities with investors, she is working to raise $1.3 million in seed funding by early in the fourth quarter, to help get PolyAurum closer to clinical trials on humans.

So far, research and testing — funded through $4 million in grants to the university — has been limited to mice with tumors. It has shown that gold nanocrystals greatly enhance the effectiveness of radiation on tumors without increasing harm to healthy surrounding tissue, said Jay Dorsey, an associate professor and radiation oncologist at Penn and one of four university faculty who developed the technology.

The effectiveness of metals in improving a tumor’s ability to absorb radiation has long been known, Dorsey said. But one of the stumbling blocks to incorporating gold nanoparticles in such therapeutics is that the metal is not eliminated from the body well, posing serious problems to vital organs such as the liver and spleen.

Penn’s David Cormode, a professor of radiology, and Andrew Tsourkas, a professor of bioengineering, have worked to make gold more biocompatible, resulting in PolyAurum’s current technology, Dorsey said. The gold nanocrystals are contained in a biodegradable polymer that allows enough metal to collect in a tumor. The polymer then breaks down, releasing the gold for excretion from the body so that it does not build up in key organs.

The company’s name is a combination of those two essential ingredients: Poly, derived from polymer, and Aurum, the Latin word for gold.

Explaining all that, and the potential that PolyAurum’s founders see for extending and saving lives, is the message Travers now is in charge of disseminating — the part of the critical path to commercialization that is not the strength of most researchers toiling in laboratories.

“She knows what the founders don’t know — it just makes a perfect match,” said Michael Dishowitz, portfolio manager at PCI Ventures, an arm of Penn that helps university start-ups find investors, recruit management, and get to market.

Since its formation about eight years ago, PCI has helped more than 150 companies secure more than $100 million in funding, said Dishowitz, who has a doctorate in bioengineering from Penn and spent several years studying the impact of cell-signaling pathways on orthopedic injury.

While calling PolyAurum’s technology “cool and very transformative for treatment,” Dishowitz also delivered a dose of reality about the rigors ahead, as health-care start-ups must navigate a course with no guarantees their products will lead to actual clinical implementation.

PolyAurum is one of 13 companies that entered Philadelphia Media Network’s second annual Stellar StartUps competition in the health-care/life sciences category. A total of nine categories drew 88 applicants. The winners will be announced Sept. 12 at an event at the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium. (Details at http://www.philly.com/stellarstartups.)

“A lot has to go right, all the planets and stars have to align for this to hit the market,” Dishowitz said of PolyAurum’s commercial prospects.

Which is why the team behind any start-up is so essential to investors, he said, calling Travers’ interest in joining a company that has yet been unable to pay her (she has equity in PolyAurum) “incredibly lucky.”

Camera icon Margo Reed
At the Nanomedicine and Molecular Imaging Lab at Penn Medicine are (front row, from left) Jay Dorsey, a radiation oncologist and a founder of PolyAurum; Debra Travers, CEO; and Andrew Tsourkas, another founder of PolyAurum; and (back row, from left) Michael Dishowitz, portfolio manager, PCI Ventures at Penn; and David Cormode, lab director and PolyAurum founder. (MARGO REED / Staff Photographer)

The only thing Travers’ corporate-heavy background lacked, he said, was raising money for a start-up. It doesn’t worry him, Dishowitz said, citing Travers’ “perseverance, no-quit attitude.”

“When you’re out there raising money, you’re going to hear ‘no’ about 100, 150 times before you hear ‘yes,’ ” Dishowitz said.

When it comes to pitching for PolyAurum, Travers has extra incentive.

“I am working on a cancer therapeutic, which is very important to the 11-year cancer survivor in me,” she said.

As for handling “nos,” she’s had plenty of professional experience with that.

“After spending 30-plus years in the drug and diagnostic industries, where it is hard to find women CEOs or board members,” Travers said, “I’ve learned to ignore the negative voices.”

Stellar StartUps

When: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Where: Fels Planetarium, Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St., Philadelphia 19103

For more information: www.philly.com/stellarstartups