Patricia Lawman, PhD ’91, is on a mission to change the future of cancer care. After losing her parents to lung cancer and lymphoma, respectively, she recognized the detrimental impact of radiation and chemotherapy. She knew there must be a way to treat a patient’s cancer without risk of toxicity and other negative side effects.
After decades of work in molecular biology, Lawman, CEO and co-founder of the Tampa-based clinical stage company Morphogenesis Inc., has engineered a treatment harnessing the power of the immune system to recognize and fight cancers. Lawman’s therapy, ImmuneFx, is an immunomodulator that is injected directly into a tumor, activating the immune system to target and destroy tumor cells.
“The immune system is quite capable of killing cancer cells — it’s just hard to distinguish cancer cells from normal cells,” she says. “We take a single bacterial gene and put it in the tumor cells. That gene is expressed on the surface of the tumor cells, like a big red flag that the immune system cannot ignore.”
Recent clinical trials involving patients with cutaneous melanoma have shown the therapy’s positive effects for patients whose cancers were previously believed to be untreatable. Lawman believes this could be a “rescue therapy” for patients whose cancer is resistant to current standard of care therapies, as well as a “front-line therapy” for patients who receive it shortly following a diagnosis.
Lawman’s fascination with science was born during her high school days when she ran with a “handful of nerds” who performed extracurricular experiments in the chemistry lab and beyond. That spark of interest remained under the surface for decades as she received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from UF and raised three children. A decade after leaving UF, she returned, starting her second round of studies with basic science classes that calcified her passion for the magic that occurs at the molecular level.
“It was fascinating to learn in my genetics course that, at the molecular level, there are strands of material that hold the blueprints of life,” Lawman recalls. “That was the lightbulb going off. I applied to graduate programs.”
After receiving a master’s in plant pathology, Lawman earned a PhD in immunology and molecular biology and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in hematology and oncology. Under the mentorship of faculty like Arnold Bleiweis, PhD, former chair of the UF Department of Oral Biology, Lawman gained not just research skills but also the confidence required to pursue her passion for devising new solutions to age-old problems.
“Arnie Bleiweis believed in this girl from Northwest Florida who had been a stay-at-home mom a long time and was trying to find a way,” Lawman says. “He taught me so much. Without the institution and the support of people there, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”
Lawman and her husband, Michael, whom she met on an airplane ride to Gainesville where she was returning as a graduate student and he was interviewing for a faculty position, lead Morphogenesis as a team, ensuring their ideas align before any decisions are cemented. Yet as CEO, Lawman recognizes her unique role in a male-dominated industry.
“I look around the biotechnology industry, and I see 1% of CEOs are female,” Lawman says. “As women, we always have to do better. I’ve learned to do the best I can in everything I do, just because. That’s not a reaction to the glass ceiling. That’s part of me now.”
For young women with similar interests in science and technology, Lawman’s advice is to find mentors, build networks of like-minded individuals and never give up a dream.
“You may be disappointed or disheartened many times, but you have to keep going,” she says. “Persistence wins the game.”
This story originally ran in the Fall 2020 issue of the Doctor Gator newsletter.