How does a breakthrough in cancer research translate from a compelling scientific discovery into a new drug, medical device, or diagnostic that can be used to improve the health and well-being of actual people?
This is the question 23-year-old Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz asks, as a venture capitalist who focuses on promising advances in biotechnological science.
But the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) grad and Harvard alum didn’t start out in venture capital. After leaving Harvard his senior year to found Nivien Therapeutics, Brooks Horwitz made it his mission to develop an experimental therapy for pancreatic cancer.
“Part of the reason I got involved in developing Nivien in the first place was because of a fundamental interest in translating new science into new technology; that has been the underlying interest in all of my work,” Brooks Horwitz said.
Now, instead of working to launch his own company, Brooks Horwitz is doing constant research on the latest innovations in biotechnology, and helping push scientific projects beyond just a base of knowledge.
“This is especially important when looking at things than can benefit human health and well-being,” Brooks Horwitz said. “Biotechnologies are uniquely able to affect human lives directly, as opposed to just how we all exist within the world.”
According to him, some of the most beneficial advancements in medical and technological science have resulted from one-off experiments that might have been published in a high-profile scientific journal.
“We see these types of science all the time, but when is that science ready to become something in the real world that can extend the average lifespan, make an existing treatment more efficient and effective, and really make a difference,” Brooks Horwitz said.
But a particular science needn’t just demonstrate a possible practical application in the real world; Brooks Horwitz said it has to be “the right science for the right reason.”
This is where ethical considerations have to be taken, and Brooks Horwitz said his interest in philosophy has played a major role in his ability to determine which science deserves to make that major step forward.
“My first major in college was philosophy, but I was always fascinated with biology,” Brooks Horwitz said.
Both of those interests, he said, were fostered in him by the many “incredible teachers” at MVRHS.
“My passion for philosophy and biology go back to Mr. Sharkovitz and Mrs. Bennett,” he said. “After all this time, and despite many illustrious Harvard professors and scientists, they remain two of the best teachers I have had.”
After shifting his focus in school to biology, Brooks Horwitz delved into his studies, but he found himself sidetracked by many of the same existential concerns introduced to him by MVRHS English teacher Dan Sharkovitz.
“I kept thinking about the book ‘Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre’; that book can almost ruin someone’s life,” he joked.
Brooks Horwitz decided to shift his focus to bioethics and seek to understand what it means for biotechnology to be used the right way and the wrong way.
“We see in the development of new therapeutics, to the genetic editing of embryos, myriad ways to which bioethical considerations are absolutely critical,” Brooks Horwitz said.
In his opinion, if a particular technology exists, it will be used: “It all comes down to which technology gets the opportunity to exist in the first place.”
Although some potential technologies are brought into the spotlight and receive financial backing and support, Brooks Horwitz said the majority stagnate or fail to be fully realized.
“I would say the majority of scientific technology is never transferred into an applicable, usable form,” Brooks Horwitz said.
And because the unmet need of cancer science remains massive, Brooks Horwitz said cancer research remains one of the most essential areas of inquiry for him. “Millions of people are dying from cancer every year, well before their time,” he said.
Brooks Horwitz said his personal reason for focusing on cancer is that his mother, Geraldine Brooks, battled an invasive breast cancer when he was 8 years old. “She went through chemo and radiation, and it was very hard, especially me being at such a young age,” Brooks Horwitz said.
From that experience, his dedication to cancer research was solidified.
Apart from the trials all biotechnological startup companies face in trying to garner support and investments for their vision, Brooks Horwitz said a larger societal change needs to occur. “We need more funding for basic research, from any given source, whether private or public,” he said.
He also highlighted scientific education as an essential value that was exemplified by the stellar teaching at MVRHS, but is lacking in the majority of today’s schools.
“We were so lucky to go to a public school that had such a strong scientific education. Our chemistry teacher had a Ph.D., our biology teacher was a superstar. We had marine biology. How many high schools in Massachusetts, let alone the country, teach marine biology?” Brooks Horwitz said.
And the ever-supportive environment at the high school, he said, is reflective of the Island community as a whole.
“I’ve been to about 50 countires, I have seen a large amount of the world. I have never found a place as good as this,” Brooks Horwitz said.
It takes a village
Brooks Horwitz said he was also lucky enough to grow up in a literary and highly educated background, and to have the constant love and support of his family.
Although “it takes a village,” Brooks Horwitz said the upbringing provided by his mother and late father has helped him tremendously over the years.
Both of Brooks Horwitz’s parents are Pulitzer prizewinners and esteemed authors. His father, famed journalist Tony Horwitz, died in May of this year while touring to promote his latest book.
Brooks Horwitz said his father’s legacy will live on through his work, and through the many fond memories they made together.
“It’s a long shadow that he left,” Brooks Horwitz said. “The reason I am home right now is to help pack up many of his papers for Columbia University.”
One of the very first things Brooks Horwitz said he did after his father died was write down every memory he could of his father, as fast as he could.
“I feared those memories would start to fade very fast, and I was right,” he said.
One night recently, Brooks Horwitz said, he had difficulty remembering the last game of chess his father and he played together. “We would always play a ton of chess. When I was young he would never let me win, but later on I would say it was about 50-50,” he said. “You do eventually return to normal life, but occasionally you get blindsided by something as simple as seeing a couple people playing a game of chess in Harvard Square.”
Apart from the memories of his father, Brooks Horwitz said the books he wrote further memorialize him and represent his shining intelligence, character, passion, and wit.
“A lot of those books contain the best of who he was, and that’s the way I think he would want to be remembered,” Brooks Horwitz said. “You pick up one of those books, and it’s like he is still right here.”