CAMBRIDGE — Epizyme Inc.’s new chief executive Robert Bazemore understands the disease his company is targeting only too well.
When he was introduced to employees this summer, Bazemore surprised them by disclosing that he’s a survivor of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a life-threatening blood cancer that could potentially be treated by the company’s lead drug candidate.
“I told them this is a space that’s near and dear to my heart,” the 48-year-old Bazemore said in an interview. “And there has to be a better way” to attack the disease.
Bazemore endured five months of chemotherapy in 2003. He received weekly infusions of chemicals that killed fast-growing cancer cells, but they left him weak and caused his hair to fall out. He drew on his grit, his family, and his faith to bring him through the ordeal.
“It does help you put things in perspective,” Bazemore said. “I developed a deeper passion for life and the preciousness of life. But it also redefined for me why I’m in this business of health care.”
Epizyme, located outside Kendall Square, is developing cancer therapies to correct disease-causing defects in the regulation of gene activity. The seven-year-old company’s approach, called epigenetics, is designed to be less toxic than chemotherapy, the drug cocktails that are used to treat many cancers.
Its experimental drug, called tazemetostat, is in clinical trials targeting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other blood cancers as well as solid tumors. It’s also working on a pipeline of other drug candidates for a broader range of cancers.
Members of the 90-person Epizyme staff who heard Bazemore speak in August said it was unlike anything they are accustomed to hearing at work.
“I was really touched by the words that he used and the energy that he had,” Epizyme senior scientist Aravind Basavapathruni said. “It was very heartfelt. He not only described his journey through this disease but used it to remind us why we do what we do. We’re here to create better, safer, less toxic drugs for cancer patients.”
A self-described “science geek,” Bazemore grew up in a Baptist family in rural Sylvania, Ga., with a father who built homes, a mother who was a banker, and a younger sister. He earned a degree in biochemistry from the University of Georgia, working in hospital emergency rooms to help pay his way, and then went to work for drug giant Merck & Co. where he spent 10 years marketing drugs in the field and from the home office.
Bazemore then moved to Centocor Inc., a smaller Malvern, Pa., biotech developing drugs for Crohn’s disease and other ailments. He was 35, with a wife and two young children, when his life was upended in the summer of 2003.
At first, he felt a burning sensation when he drank acidic liquids such as coffee or wine. Co-workers told him that it looked as though he was losing weight, but because he was a distance runner — logging 10 to 20 miles a day — he didn’t think twice about it. Then, in July, he was leading a strategic planning meeting at Centocor when lunch was brought in.
“I was eating, but [the food] all got stuck,” Bazemore recalled. “It wouldn’t go down at all. My esophagus started to spasm. It felt like something was ripping apart inside.”
He drove himself to a local hospital emergency room and was given an endoscopy. “When I came out from under the anesthesia, the surgeon explained to me he had found a mass,” Bazemore recalled. “He had to tell me a couple of times before I realized the gravity of what he was saying. He had found a large 7-centimeter tumor at the top of my stomach.”
Bazemore went home to tell his family. He also called his parents and his sister.
“When you’re faced with something like that, you always wonder, ‘Did you live your life the way you wanted to?’ ” he said. “And I realized I wouldn’t change a single thing. But at the same time, it crossed my mind that my kids, who were 4 and 6 at the time, wouldn’t remember who I was when they grew up. And that was the single thing that probably brought me to tears.”
His doctors referred him to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for diagnosis and treatment. Specialists there told him his tumor was aggressive, but for two weeks they weren’t able to identify the cell type.
Ultimately they came back with a diagnosis: diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a version of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They also told him it had metastasized through his lymph nodes. Bazemore learned he was stage 4, meaning the cancer had spread extensively.
“The upside, they told me, was that it should respond to chemotherapy,” he said.
So began a medical odyssey. Bazemore’s son and daughter were told he was ill, and the family canceled a planned vacation. “My daughter’s interpretation of the episode was we couldn’t go to Disney World because Daddy was sick,” he recalled.
Bazemore’s parents came up from Georgia and sat in the hospital room with him when he had his first round of chemotherapy. He had an extreme allergic reaction to one of the five drugs in his chemotherapy mix, but the nurses were able to revive him and continue the treatment.
“It was then that I decided this wasn’t going to define who I was,” Bazemore said. “I woke up the very next morning and the first thing I did was ask the nurses if they could bring a stationary bike into my room. It was almost like an act of defiance . . . They said this was a very unusual request, but they did it. And I spent every morning and afternoon cycling.”
About a week later, he was discharged, and the following week he returned to work.
“I wanted to go back to work immediately,” he said. “It was financial, but it wasn’t really just financial. I didn’t want this to change me. I didn’t want it to define me in a different way. My bosses were incredibly gracious in that they let me work all the way through this.”
Bazemore received his chemotherapy treatments every other week. He took additional drugs to prevent nausea and to keep his white and red blood cell counts up. On the treatment weeks, he would work Monday through Wednesday, drive to the clinic Thursday, and take the weekend off to recover. Then he would be back in the office on Monday morning.
During the long months, Bazemore’s spirits were lifted by a “prayer chain” of letters and phone calls — organized by his sister Shannon Sowell — from old friends, relatives, and people he hardly knew. “I would get letters from people who would say they didn’t know me but they were thinking of me,” he said. “And so many of them would say, ‘I was also touched by cancer.’ ”
In November, he completed his final treatment. A scan the following month showed no evidence of cancer. But for the next five years, he had to return to the hospital for scans — first weekly, then monthly, and then every other month. Thankfully, the tumor never returned.
More than a decade later, Bazemore said he’s one of the lucky ones. Only about half of patients survive the disease, and even a smaller percentage of stage 4 patients.
The experience motivated Bazemore to focus more on cancer-fighting drugs. He continued moving up in his career, eventually becoming president of a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that marketed cancer therapies. “I was responsible for one of the drugs that was used on me” to boost his red blood cell count during chemotherapy, he said. At that job, he also helped launch a drug to treat prostate cancer and another to treat a different type of lymphoma.
But his career took a detour when he was recruited last year to be chief operating officer of Synageva BioPharma Corp., a Lexington maker of rare disease medicines. The company was acquired by Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. eight months after he arrived.
Soon after that deal was announced, Bazemore was approached by executive recruiters about taking the top job at Epizyme, which went public in 2013 and was preparing to transition from a research into a full-scale commercial company. Robert Gould, a scientist who served for several years as chief executive, had decided it was time to turn over the reins. (He remains on the company’s board and will consult with Bazemore for the coming year.)
In his first interview for the job, Bazemore didn’t mention his own experience with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But after learning about Epizyme and its disease targets, he told Gould and other board members that was one of the factors that appealed to him.
“This was a personal interest of mine,” he said.
A company spokesman said Bazemore’s bout with cancer “wasn’t central to the hiring process.”
During his illness, Bazemore often said he didn’t want his disease to define him. But his determination to fight it will now help to define his company’s quest to develop cancer-fighting treatments.
About Epizyme Inc.
Business: Cancer drug developer
Lead drug candidate: Tazemetostat, for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Market value: $580.1 million
SOURCE: EPIZYME INC.