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Wharton Commencement Speaker to Share How the MBA Could Save His Life

david fajgenbaumDavid Fajgenbaum, MD, MSc, has been working toward his MBA as if his life depends on it. Because it does. On Sunday, in his commencement address to his classmates at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he will share just why he believes a graduate management education can be the difference between life and death.

Fajgenbaum was diagnosed with idiopathic Multicentric Castleman disease (iMCD) in 2010, a rare and poorly understood hematologic disorder in which the immune system becomes activated and causes cells to release inflammatory proteins that ultimately shut down the body’s organs. At the time of his diagnosis, he was in his third year of medical school at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. He took a year’s leave and underwent aggressive chemotherapy, which initially was unsuccessful. Over a six-month period, he was hospitalized for four and a half months and even read his last rites. But ultimately the chemo helped put the disease into remission, and Fajgenbaum returned to complete his MD. He then proceeded straight into the MBA program at Wharton.

Prior to his diagnosis, Fajgenbaum had no intention of pursuing an MBA. But his disease, combined with research he conducted in medical school, convinced him that he could do nothing else. “There was no choice,” he says matter-of-factly. “I viewed what I would learn in my coursework at Wharton as the information I needed to keep myself alive, to solve this disease, and to extend my life. I needed this training to take this disease down.”

Why You Need a Business Degree to Battle Deadly Diseases
When he returned to medical school after his diagnosis, Fajgenbaum dove headfirst into researching his own deadly disease, which has a 62 percent five-year survival rate. He made some dramatic breakthroughs. In an article published recently in the journal Blood he turns much of what had previously been understood about the disease on its head, suggesting a new concept of iMCD pathogenesis and presenting a new sub-classification system.

But he also encountered major roadblocks. Biomedical research, he found, was plagued by a lack of overarching strategy, limited collaboration, and inefficient use of funds. Perhaps even more damaging, limited resources like tissue samples weren’t distributed in ways best geared toward finding a cure. Too often, says Fajgenbaum, experts in a given field keep all of the tissue samples to themselves. Without access to samples, other researchers are shut out from the process, unable to contribute to eradicating rare diseases.

In 2012, he co-founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network (CDCN) to help accelerate research and treatments. Still, he knew he needed the training an MBA would offer to keep moving forward. Especially given that he was already conducting research on Penn’s campus, Wharton was the obvious choice for business school. “There is nowhere else I would rather have been,” he says. “It was a no brainer.”

Now, guided in great part by the training he has received at Wharton, Fajgenbaum and the CDCN are trying to democratize research by collecting tissue samples directly from patients and distributing them to researchers more strategically. To this end, he has developed a brand-new model for building patient registries, one that allows patients to enroll themselves but grant permission to a team of healthcare professionals to verify the medical information. This hybrid model combines the high quality of physician-powered registries with the affordability and greater reach of registries powered by patients.

He has also connected all the physicians and researchers in the world who are interested in Castleman disease—there are 288 in his network—and then crowdsourced among this community to determine what research should be conducted first. Finally, he has helped encourage and facilitate collaboration with pharmaceutical companies, all with the goal of accelerating the path toward a cure.

“When you are dealing with research and deadly diseases, there are serious downsides to not coming up with a solution,” he says. “You should be willing to try anything. Everything has to be on the table.”

Wharton’s Community Rallies Around Fajgenbaum’s Fight
The support and community Fajgenbaum encountered at Wharton has astounded him. “I came to business school expecting that I would be able to gain the skills that I needed to take down Castleman disease,” says Fajgenbaum. “What I didn’t count on was the Wharton community getting behind me the way it did.”

Twenty fellow students have given as much as 20 hours a week of their time to be part of the CDCN’s leadership team. The help this team has provided—from working with a researcher at Columbia University to obtain tissue samples to creating marketing materials—has been invaluable.

“I never imagined there would be this significant group of Wharton students who would make this their passion, too,” he says. He calculates the ROI of his MBA in terms different than those of many other business school students. The way he sees it, he has gotten at least a 10-fold return on the two years he devoted to business school in terms of the time and energy his colleagues and classmates have given to serve on the team and be part of the fight.

Laser Focus Could Result in a Blueprint for All Rare Diseases
Also while at Wharton, Fajgenbaum worked together with some of his classmates to develop a business plan for how the CDCN’s approach to eradicating Castleman disease might scale to combat other rare diseases. The venture, coined Cure Accelerator, was a semi-finalist in the Wharton Business Plan Competition (BPC) and won the BPC Social Impact award.

For the time being, though, scaling to combat other rare diseases will have to wait. “If I didn’t have Castleman disease and we weren’t on the edge of so many breakthroughs, I would pursue that with everything,” Fajgenbaum says. But for now, he simply doesn’t have the bandwidth.

Message for Fellow Business School Graduates
Fajgenbaum suffered a third relapse while at Wharton, requiring a third debilitating round of seven chemo agents administered over a three-week cycle. But not only will he graduate on time with his class on Sunday, he was selected by a committee of his classmates to deliver the student commencement address.

So what does he plan to say? First, he wants to remind his fellow graduates that there are countless problems outside the traditional MBA industries that a business school education can help solve. “Your MBA puts you in a position to transform and overcome hurdles in any industry,” he says, not just investment banking or consulting.

Second, you can have impact even if you’re not a subject-matter expert. Business school graduates who know nothing about medicine can still be instrumental in driving research forward, by offering innovative strategies for motivating researchers or novel means of incentivizing collaboration, for example. “You can change and transform industries based on the unique resources you have developed here,” he says.

Last but not least, he will remind his class that it takes an army to make change. “We would have made one percent of the progress and breakthroughs we have made if it were me doing it by myself,” he underscores. Turn to your classmates, your colleagues—they will be there to support you.

On to His Dream Job
As his classmates toss their mortarboards skyward and head off to their post-MBA jobs, Fajgenbaum will continue on his mission to find a cure for the disease that still threatens his life. He has just accepted a full-time research position at Penn’s medical school that will allow him to spend 95 percent of his time researching Castleman disease. “It’s a dream come true,” he says.

Even though he is returning to medicine and research, he has every intention of turning to fellow Wharton graduates and future business school students for help and insights. “We desperately need smart business students to come up with solutions to these complex biomedical problems,” he says. “Not enough people are applying business strategies to biomedical problems,” he laments. “It’s a bunch of MDs and PhDs doing the best they can. But when we can get smart MDs and PhDs in the same room as smart MBAs—that’s when we can really come up with ideas that will change the world.”