Commentary: Targeted cancer drugs finally live up to the hype

2 months ago 440

CHICAGO: Cancer drugs that work like heat-seeking missiles to deliver chemicals directly to tumours are having a bit of a moment. Pharmaceutical companies, in need of assets to counter flagging sales, are making these so-called antibody-drug conjugates the technology of choice in oncology dealmaking, as illustrated by last week’s US$10.1 billion acquisition of ImmunoGen by AbbVie.

If that trend sounds vaguely familiar, you have probably been following the pharma industry for too long. The field has gone through waves of hype and investment over the past several decades. This time, though, the hype is deserved.  

After decades of fits and starts, the science around designing and testing this class of drugs has finally coalesced. The concept of deploying powerful chemo drugs to cancer cells in a targeted, safer way always made sense; now, companies know how to do it in a manner that could make them a staple of cancer care.

That’s reflected in pharma companies’ sudden deep commitment to the space. In addition to AbbVie’s acquisition, other deals this year include Pfizer’s proposed US$43 billion buyout of Seagen, Merck’s US$4 billion tie-up with Daiichi Sankyo, and a series of smaller investments from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly.

THE SLOG HAS PAID OFF

It has taken a while to get here. Consider that ImmunoGen has been plugging away at its smart-bomb technology for longer than some biotech executives have been alive.

Formed in 1981, the company has survived many peaks and valleys in its pursuit of antibody-drug conjugates. At one point, it had chugged along so long that one New York Times reporter included it in a list of “zombie biotechs”, companies churning through cash for decades without ever turning a profit.

While a drug developed by one of its partners that used its technology was approved in 2013, ImmunoGen didn’t have its own product - Elahere, for advanced ovarian cancer - on the market until last year.

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