A $10 million gift from entrepreneurs Emmet and Toni Stephenson and their daughter Tessa Stephenson Brand will further the pioneering efforts of Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) Professor David B. Agus, MD, to change the way cancer is viewed and treated and forge a path to personalized medicine.

The gift establishes the Stephenson Family Personalized Medicine Center, dedicated to tailoring cancer treatments to each individual, an approach being developed under Agus’ direction at the Center for Applied Molecular Medicine (CAMM) at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The idea of personalized treatment has special meaning for the Stephenson family. Toni Stephenson has been battling T-cell lymphoma, and Agus played an advisory role in developing her treatment regimen. His recommendation to try an experimental medicine specific to her condition proved crucial.

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“She’s in clinical trial No. 1 for her kind of cancer using this particular drug,” Emmet Stephenson said, noting that his wife’s cancer has been in remission for about 18 months. “And it’s terrific.”

Using technology to improve medicine makes sense to the Stephensons, whose fortune was made in part from technology ventures. The creators of Domain.com, an Internet publishing empire, they also founded StarTek and operate Stephenson Ventures, a portfolio management and private equity company.

Brand, a 2002 graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and founder of Tessa Lyn Events, L.L.C., a wedding and event planning company based in Brentwood, Calif., expressed confidence in Agus’ ability to envision a new way to approach cancer as a complex problem, rather than just a disease.

“Dr. Agus is forward-thinking. He is thinking 100 years into the future,” she said. “He plans to change the face of health care rather than solve a single problem. He thinks bigger than most people, and he is the type of person we want to support.”

Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and USC Viterbi School of Engineering, is an author of two best-selling books on health. He believes that he and his colleagues at CAMM, which he directs, are on the right track and in the right position to make their vision a reality.

“Personalized medicine is really about bringing new technologies to bear to bring a whole new classification system for cancers,” Agus said. “Our team is made up of physicists, mathematicians, engineers, biologists — all different disciplines who each look at data in a different fashion. Our goal is to create models for what’s happening to the cancer and what will happen as it progresses. And those mathematical models can hopefully tell us which treatments to do — or not to do.”

As a result of the Stephenson gift, two new leaders have been appointed at the center: Laboratory Director Shannon Mumenthaler and Director of Analytics Dan Ruderman.

Mumenthaler, who has a bachelor’s degree in genetics from the University of California, Davis and a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular pathology from the University of California, Los Angeles, is leading a team that will utilize advanced imaging approaches to dissect the complexities of the tumor microenvironment. The goal is to disrupt specific environmental factors to prevent disease progression and improve patient outcome.

Ruderman has a doctorate in theoretical physics from University of California, Berkeley and has done postdoctoral research at Cambridge University, USC and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. His team will generate and analyze large data sets to dissect the genomic complexities within and across cancer patients and dynamically track changes in mutations and cell signaling over short and long term scales to help guide clinical decision-making.

The work at CAMM benefits directly from the advanced technology in use at USC. “We’re very lucky in that we came to USC a few years ago, and they have one of the great supercomputing facilities in the country,” Agus said.

Agus sees the Stephenson family’s unconventional way of dealing with Toni Stephenson’s cancer as the sort of fresh thinking he advocates.

“Diseases were categorized by body part in the 1800s, and we’ve categorized cancers by body part since then. Prostate. Breast. Lung. Whatever tissue they start in,” Agus said. “I think what we’re learning now is that it’s not the tissue — it’s the pathway. It’s the context.”

In Emmet Stephenson’s view, the more information that a doctor has available, the better the decisions that will be made. And it is an immense undertaking.

“There are over 400 kinds of cancer and over 7 billion people. That’s a lot of possible combinations for personalized medicine,” he said. “The thing that we hope will come from this donation is that other people will step up and help us. It’s going to take a lot of resources and it’s going to take a lot of smart people.”

by Leslie Ridgeway