An audacious attempt to cure pancreatic cancer

pancreatic cancer cell
Close up of pancreatic cancer cell
Photograph by Getty Images

Finding a cure for pancreatic cancer just got a healthy shot in the arm.

Berg, a small Boston-based biotech firm, is teaming up with an array of prestigious hospitals and research teams to discover and validate the first-ever clinical biomarker to diagnose and treat pancreatic cancer, according to people with knowledge of the partnership.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease, with an average five-year survival rate of 7%. The partnership, which includes the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, as well as the Pancreatic Cancer Research Team (PCRT), is scheduled to be announced on Tuesday.

Such a partnership is noteworthy because curing pancreatic and other aggressive types of cancers aren’t at the top of Big Pharma’s to-do list. That’s because finding a cure for cancer is, well, really hard. Instead, large pharmaceutical companies tend to focus their research and development dollars on rare diseases, where profit margins are extremely high. They also tend to focus on chronic diseases, the kind where patients will need treatment indefinitely, assuring a steady and lucrative cash flow.

Berg, which was co-founded six years ago by Carl Berg, the billionaire real-estate tycoon, along with Mitch Gray and Niven Narain, is looking to upend that business model. Using big data and artificial intelligence algorithms developed by Narain, the biotech firm aims to isolate the root causes of many diseases, including cancer, and develop tailor-made treatment options for patients.

Recently, Berg has been working with the U.S. Department of Defense to find a more efficient and effective way to combat prostate cancer. While prostate cancer has a relatively high survivorship rate if caught early, treatment is often painful and extremely expensive. The DoD spends millions of dollars each year treating veterans and servicemen diagnosed with the disease.

But all those years treating prostate cancer may not have been a total write-off for the government. In doing so, it acquired a boatload of data covering nearly all aspects of the disease, including critical biological and demographic data. Berg has been using that data to find possible new drug targets or new biomarkers to help combat this type of cancer.

The data crunching led to the development of Berg’s first drug, BPM 31510, which is in clinical trials. The drug essentially reprograms the metabolism of the cancer cells, re-teaching them to undergo apoptosis, or cell death. The cancer cells die off naturally, without the need for harmful and expensive chemotherapy.

BPM 31510, which may work on a variety of cancers, will be introduced in the phase II clinical trials for pancreatic cancer at 48 PCRT sites around the world as a result of the partnership announced Tuesday, a person with knowledge of the trials tells Fortune. The company hopes it will be able to move forward testing on other cancers in the near future, this person said.

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