Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the pace at which cancer research was moving forward began to stagnate. The huge gains of the 1950s to the 1970s began to give way to a period of lesser growth in the number of effective new treatments that were hitting the market. But for a team of researchers at Bristol-Myers Squibb, this stagnation of cancer treatment innovation would motivate them to create one of the most novel treatments ever to hit the cancer pharmaceutical industry.
Clay Siegall is one of the nation’s leading cancer researchers and one of the most successful pharmaceutical CEOs in the country today. But back in the mid-90s, Dr. Siegall was still a senior researcher at Bristol-Myers Squibb. There, he was leading a team that was developing new kinds of drugs. These were broadly termed targeted cancer therapies. The idea behind these drugs was to develop the means by which malignant tissue itself could specifically be targeted, without releasing massive quantities of highly toxic chemicals into the patient’s bloodstream.
Dr. Siegall and his team began working on a highly novel subclass of targeted therapies known as antibody drug conjugates. Antibody drug conjugates take advantage of the human body’s own immune system. By developing a large number of synthetic antibodies to the antigens produced by specific tumor types, Dr. Siegall and his team were able to find mechanisms to deliver highly lethal cytotoxins to the site of the tumor itself. Only then were the payload of toxins released into the tumor tissues, virtually eliminating all side effects associated with traditional chemotherapy, which rely on the systemic release of incredibly toxic agents.
In 1998, Dr. Siegall founded Seattle Genetics, a company dedicated solely to the production and research of new antibody drug conjugates. Throughout the 2000’s, Seattle Genetics worked to develop the first FDA-approved, viable antibody drug conjugate. In 2011, the company met its goal. ADCetris is the first FDA-approved antibody drug conjugate to hit the market. It is approved for treatment of refractory non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a disease of the immune system that causes uncontrolled production of diseased white blood cells.
This drug is currently only approved for second-line treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But soon, Dr. Siegall expects it to be approved for first-line treatment as well. This will mark a tectonic shift in the way that cancer is treated in the United States.