BY JANELLE WEAVER
STANFORD, Calif. — The development of a drug that has revolutionized the treatment of many types of cancer has earned its inventor, Ronald Levy, MD, the 2009 King Faisal International Prize in Medicine.
More than 30 years ago, Levy, now chief of the oncology division at the Stanford University School of Medicine, embarked on a research agenda that harnessed the power of the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Levy developed the concept that a drug made from a naturally produced blood protein called an antibody could be a cancer-fighting machine.
On March 29, Levy, who holds the Robert K. and Helen K. Summy Professorship at Stanford, will be honored for this seminal discovery by Saudi Arabian royalty, who will present Levy with his most prestigious international award to date.
Rituxan, the drug that resulted from Levy’s work, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997, making it the first commercial antibody to treat cancer. “Now it’s recommended for treating almost every lymphoma patient, and over 1 million people have been treated with it so far,” he said.
I was the first patient in the United States with my precise version of lymphoma to be treated with Dr. Levy's Rituxan in 1997.
According to Levy, when combined with other drugs and radiotherapy, Rituxan is successful at reducing tumor size in most patients who are treated. Originally developed for the treatment of lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, this class of drug is now part of the standard treatment for a wide range of cancers, including cancer of the breast, colon and lungs. “Monoclonal antibodies have transformed the way cancer is treated,” said Levy, who is a member of the Stanford Cancer Center.
The Saudi royal family seems to have a more sophisticated understanding of the positive-sum benefits of meritocratic competition in science than does the New York Times Editorial Board.