We are living in a golden era of cancer research that was unimaginable a decade ago. In the past five years alone, scientific innovation has accelerated at an unprecedented speed and cancer diagnoses that were once terminal are increasingly becoming stories of patients beating cancer. Behind this progress are stories of the scientific community coming together in new ways, bringing research and insights forward faster and better than we’ve ever seen.
For me personally, it has been equally exciting and humbling to serve as CEO of a company that developed the first cancer checkpoint inhibitor and saw the incredible impact this new class of medicines has had on the fight against cancer. We’ve seen many more cancer survivors in the last five years and I am confident we will see this number increase. We’ve made great progress, but there’s still more to be done for cancer patients hoping to make the journey from disease to survivorship.
Take the story of immunotherapy. In 2004, Bristol Myers Squibb began collaborating with Medarex on work being done on CTLA-4 protein receptor, work we saw as important and differentiated despite some of the skepticism at the time. Jim Allison, now a Nobel Prize winner, had shown that CTLA-4 played an important role in cancer: taking the “brake” off T-cells and allowing them to attack tumors.
Shortly after the initial discovery by Allison, Alan Korman and Nils Lonberg at Medarex partnered with Allison and developed a fully human anti-CTLA-4 antibody to test the approach in humans. That antibody would lead to the first approved checkpoint inhibitor. In 2009 Bristol Myers Squibb acquired Medarex and our team of scientists, as well as the academic researchers in this area, came together to pursue what they believed to be a game changer in cancer. There were setbacks along the way, but they knew they were on to something. And they were right.
Fast forward to today, where two immunotherapies that came out of Medarex are now important advances in cancer care and there’s no doubt in what was done. Critical in the life of these medicines and the development of the science was a much more open model between academia, biotech and pharma. Many points in the storyline would have been different if the scientists, the companies or the investigators had acted alone or based decisions on just their own data.
And even though this story reflects incredible progress in the treatment of cancer, we have also learned that not all cancer patients will respond well — if at all — to the therapies currently available. We also recognize that the current R&D model has not evolved fast enough. It’s a lengthy and costly process and on average, takes 10 to 15 years to move a medicine from the lab to the market.
That’s time that cancer patients and their loved ones can’t afford to wait.