Mixing world-class healthcare with cutting-edge genomic science and startup tech smarts, Scottsdale’s Cure Corridor aims to be Arizona’s medical solutions incubator.
By Jimmy Magahern
Christian Green first noticed the T-bone years ago, when he was driving a relative from one top specialist to another for cancer treatment, in what turned out to be a fairly concentrated area around Scottsdale’s two main drags. On a map, the curious connect-the-dots pattern of healthcare and biolife sciences companies scattered throughout the city was beginning to resemble a reclining T-bone steak.
“Basically we spent all our time going from one place to another within this cluster of locations in Scottsdale,” says Green, economic development manager of the City of Scottsdale.
He was pointing out the concentration of care centers, research institutions and clinical trial centers that form a long thin line over Shea Boulevard from 136th Street to Scottsdale Road and a thicker perpendicular stroke covering Scottsdale Road and the Loop 101 from the Airpark down to Thomas Road.
“We didn’t have a name for it then; it hadn’t been identified yet. But you had Mayo Clinic on one end and what was the Scottsdale Healthcare Shea Medical Center, now HonorHealth, on the other, and then you had the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center to the south. It was a grouping of institutions that just naturally came together to form its own synergy.”
It took Scottsdale Mayor W.J. “Jim” Lane giving a name to the pattern—the “Cure Corridor”—to solidify an identity for the cluster and give the city its own distinct stake in the innovative economy of Arizona.
Today Scottsdale’s Cure Corridor represents the biggest assemblage of cutting-edge healthcare and bioscience institutions in the state, comprising some 45 patient care delivery, research and clinical trial companies, with 17 located in the Scottsdale Airpark area alone. All hovering over that big western T-bone.
“That was my initiative for a long time,” says Lane, “but we finally brought it all together in a more formal way about three years ago, when we organized the inventory of companies that are in the biosciences and biotechnical field and named it the Cure Corridor. It started with the Mayo Clinic along with the rapid growth of Scottsdale Healthcare, but the big jump happened when T-Gen (the nonprofit Translational Genomics Research Institute) came to the Valley and later TD2, the translational drug development subsidiary, came here. That’s when I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got something special here.’
“We already had some world-class healthcare companies offering drug therapies that sustain and extend life, but now we also had a major component in the business of curing long-standing illnesses through genomics and translational drug development therapies. So that’s where the name ‘the Cure Corridor’ came from. It goes to the idea of curing illnesses, rather than just sustaining life with drug therapy.”
Lane says the simple act of identifying the assortment of health-related companies in Scottsdale and then “broadcasting it to the world,” as the City did at its first Cure Corridor event in September 2013, helping attract even more key players to the area. (A third annual event, featuring speakers from some of the Corridor’s major anchors, will be held at the Scottsdale Fairmont Princess on Dec. 4.)
“Environments have a tendency, once they develop and are identified, to grow organically,” he says. “So establishing Scottsdale as a home to a field of great companies in the industry has indeed attracted more, from businesses specializing in clinical care and education to research and development and innovation. We’re now dealing with people in tech startups, science companies, healthcare institutions and supporting fields who recognize the Cure Corridor as a collaborative yet competitive environment, where everybody is in a position to talk about what they’re doing and noodle it with others in their field. And it’s been a very positive thing for the city.”
Dr. Ruben Mesa can vouch for the competitive atmosphere that exists in the Valley between cancer centers, which vie for patients while simultaneously aiming to make history with a cancer cure.
“I think people can clearly tell, from the amount of advertising done by various cancer centers, that there is competition here,” says Mesa, who serves as deputy director of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center in Arizona and chairs the division of hematology/oncology in the clinic’s Department of Internal Medicine. “But to some degree that can be helpful, in that it both gives patients choices and it also encourages innovation, collaboration and interaction between the leaders at the different medical centers. We all view cancer as the enemy and view our colleagues with great respect.”
Mesa cites the clinical trials Mayo has been performing in the field of melanoma treatment as the perfect example of the kind of collaboration the Corridor fosters. “That’s something we’re working on both here at the Mayo Clinic but also in collaboration with TGen and the investigators at HonorHealth,” he says. “In that particular study, patients with melanoma are having their genes sequenced and then, based on their genetic profile, receive one of 20 different therapies, and the therapy that’s chosen specifically targets that individual’s cancer.”
The study leverages TGen’s expertise in cancer genomics to analyze each patient’s tumor at a molecular level so that he or she can be treated with the best drug for the individual situation. The organizations Stand Up To Cancer and the Melanoma Research Alliance, which are funding the study, have called the collaboration (which also includes researchers from ASU), Arizona’s “Melanoma Dream Team.”
In addition to Mayo’s efforts in the fight against that deadly skin cancer, Mesa is excited about the clinic’s phase I drug development program for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. He says Mayo is conducting trials of two promising drugs: P8302, which attacks pancreatic cancer cells living in oxygen-depleted regions; and PEGPH20, which penetrates pancreatic cancer cells to make them more susceptible to chemotherapy.
Mayo is also conducting trials for patients with acute and chronic leukemia, including one that will decrease the amount of radiation treatments a patient needs, and one using newly invented “proton beams” in combination with immunological treatments to treat cancers that were considered inoperable before. Mayo is opening a $180 million proton facility next spring in a facility just east of the Phoenix campus.
Mesa says that being a part of a collective like the Cure Corridor helps the clinic gain recognition for such innovative treatments, as the City’s high-profile branding effectively draws more national and international attention to all the organizations connected with it.
“I think it’s put Scottsdale very much on the radar, more than it’s been in the past,” he says. “And I think there’s much more international awareness of our efforts. That’s good for Arizona cancer patients, and good for Arizona.”
Collaboration Extends Beyond Walls
Dr. Mark Slater, vice president for research at HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center, calls HonorHealth’s Research Institute an “institute without walls,” because his team often partners with leading universities and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
Slater considers the Cure Corridor, which he helped the city develop, an extension of the same concept: kind of the open-office model spread out over a city. “Collaboration is a key part of what we do,” he says, “trying to extend beyond our institutional walls to attract talent and technology and resources into our community in ways that can have a direct impact right here and now for our patients.”
Like Mayo, HonorHealth’s research team has been benefiting from partnering with TGen, which Slater says is helping them develop “this field of precision medicine and individually targeted therapies for cancer,” echoing Dr. Mesa’s praise for the benefits of implementing genomic science into basic patient care.
“The idea of understanding tumors at the molecular level, and targeting new drug development that can go to those molecular mechanisms and apply the appropriate therapy for each individual patient, that’s exciting,” he says with enthusiasm. “That can reduce side effects and greatly improve outcomes.”
Slater mentions as an example HonorHealth’s work with basal cell cancer, skin lesions that can become metastatic and spread to vital organs of the body.
“A local Scottsdale man was the very first person in the world to try new targeted therapy as it was developed here that followed a molecular pathway. Through basic science research we were able to translate that into an oral pill, able to be taken with very few side effects. He went from having a life expectancy of a few weeks and needing to be sent to a hospice to going back to independent living, with the tumors basically falling off from his skin and the skin healing.
“That drug was fast-track approved through the FDA, and now it’s standard therapy, available for advanced basal cell cancer and it’s also been used for certain brain tumors in children. It really heartened us to show that this approach to understanding the science, and understanding precisely what the molecular mechanisms of the tumor are, can lead to real breakthroughs in therapy.”
HonorHealth has also had great success partnering with TGen in fighting pancreatic cancer, developing two new approved therapies that have doubled the one-to two-year survival rate for the disease, with some stage IV pancreatic cancer patients now surviving over a decade under their care.
As for the future, Slater says HonorHealth recently created a spinoff technology company called Imaging Endpoints, located just south of HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center, that is now using “textural analysis” to identify the biology of tumors and accelerate successful responses to new chemotherapy through advanced imaging. It is also partnering with healthcare informatics specialists (engineers schooled in the science of computer information systems) to launch a “molecular medicine initiative,” gathering genomic and molecular information to identify the earliest times they can intervene to intercept cancer before it takes hold.
“These kinds of capabilities come in through these collaborations and innovations, and we’re able to foster those advances for patients,” he says. “Collaboration is built into the fabric of our organization, which was key in attracting me to this community. Here we can collaborate and connect patients with all the resources to get the care that they need.”
New Frontiers for Corridor
Lane says one field that’s becoming an increasingly important part of the Cure Corridor is advanced computer science, a domain dominated here by all the tech startups concentrated around the Scottsdale Airpark.
“The overhaul of our healthcare system and the efficiencies that are being brought about by innovations in all matters of administration, electronic record keeping and the utilization of time has become paramount,” Lane says. “And that creates a need for companies specializing in things like biomedical informatics, health records banking and the ability to store and retrieve medical records from any place on the globe.”
Lane mentions Theranos, the consumer blood test company founded by Elizabeth Holmes, the chemical engineering prodigy who dropped out of Stanford to form her own company at age 19, as an example of the new health technology disrupters entering the Cure Corridor. The Palo Alto-based company took over a 20,000-square-foot wing at SkySong last July. Theranos recently partnered with Walgreens to begin offering its blood testing platform, which uses a few drops of blood obtained via a fingerstick rather than vials of blood obtained via traditional venipuncture, at all of the stores’ Wellness Centers.
Closer to the Airpark, Lane cites Orion Health, a New Zealand software company offering big data analytics to healthcare providers and insurance companies that recently opened its North American development center near the south end of the Scottsdale Airport. Lane says the company plans to hire 100 new employees within its first year and an additional 300 to 400 over the following three years, offering new hires an average salary of around $88,000 annually.
“What we’re doing with the Cure Corridor is just bringing some of these companies together to create a smoother path to some of these innovations,” he says. “And so far, it’s accomplishing everything we hoped for and more.”