The patients’ entrance at the National Institutes of Health. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Nearly two decades ago, a pair of Boston scientists worked on an idea that had failed so many times it had been pushed to the fringes of cancer medicine: the idea that the body’s immune system could be unleashed against tumors.
“Immunotherapy had been proposed as an idea for 100 years, but nothing had worked. We cured a lot of mice, but no people,” said Gordon Freeman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Not only was it not trendy, it was in low esteem. No company was aggressively funding immunotherapy — it just didn’t have much appeal.”
As a seemingly fringe endeavor, the initial work wouldn’t have been possible without federal support — much of which came, as it happens, from a research institute that is devoted not to cancer but to allergies.
“It was really the NIH grants, from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that really supported this work at that point in time. The funding was absolutely critical,” Sharpe, a professor of comparative pathology at Harvard Medical School, said. “The hope was, if we got a basic understanding of the molecules involved, that could then translate to different types of therapy.”
Science is, by its nature, about unraveling things we don’t yet understand, and Freeman and Sharpe’s work — along with others — laid the intellectual foundation for what has rapidly become the hottest area of cancer medicine. Multiple pharmaceutical companies licensed the patents that emerged from their research, and they helped spur development of a new type of cancer drug that unleashes the immune system on cancer cells, also releasing what Freeman calls “a tsunami of scientific enthusiasm — and pharmaceutical enthusiasm.” Today, there are more than 800 clinical trials targeted …read more