The Best Hope For Curtailing Cancer: Treatments That Activate The Body’s Own Defenses

Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cancer history book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, talks about the promise of immunotherapy.

Immunotherapies that activate the immune system to fight cancers are a hot area of research these days, attracting millions of dollars in funding from drug companies and the federal government. But there was a time when the field was a backwater, derided as ineffective and dangerous, or just plain boring. For most of the 20th century, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy were preferred over immuno-oncology treatments, despite the latter showing some promise in the late-1800s.


Murdo Gordon, chief commercial officer at leading immunotherapy developer Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), recounted some of this history at the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week. Big discoveries, he said, often happen by chance and often because certain individuals don’t give up, despite the preponderance of research pointing in another direction.

“Any basic science has a degree of serendipity to it,” he said. “There were so many different moments that could have led to the next stage of scientific discovery [in immunotherapy]. But the story is also one of persistence when there were dark periods, when it wasn’t cool and sexy, and it wasn’t thought to be a good strategy to fight cancer.”

Gordon appeared on stage with Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cancer history book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Mukherjee predicted that immunotherapies, which block the method cancer cells use to shut off the immune system, will see more cancers being eliminated in the future and more cancer-affected lives being prolonged.

“The toolbox has expanded enormously. Over the next 10 years, we will see more cancer prevention and more cancer treated without the toxic effects [of cancer treatments like chemotherapy]. The balance will change,” he said.

BMS has two approved immunotherapies on the market: Yervoy (used to treat melanoma skin cancer) and Opdivo (some lung cancer). Others are in development. In 27 years in the pharmaceutical business, Gordon said he’d “never been more astonished at the brilliance of scientists in allowing us to bring these products to market.” He cautioned, though, that more work was needed to bring down the cost, which can run to $150,000 a year, and in reducing toxic side effects. (Disclosure: the panel was sponsored by BMS).

Mukherjee said the history of cancer research showed the need to find a balance between staying laser-focused on one line of inquiry and being open to new ideas. “How do you not get trapped in biases? That’s a big question. How do you compare the outliers and the inliers? There’s a non-algorithmic way, a nimbleness. When we’ve been nimble as a community, we’ve succeeded. When we’ve not been nimble, we haven’t.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.