Prior to the 1930s, a diagnosis of cancer was often a death sentence. Most patients did not survive more than about six months from the onset of the first symptoms. This was almost independent of the cancer type. These patients often were treated only with palliative care, which usually involved little more than pumping them full of morphine or other opioids.
But then novel treatments started coming online . Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, it first became known that cancer could be successfully fought with the use of radiation and excision of the tumor site. Gradually, survival rates begin to improve. For some types of cancer, such as breast cancers, the survival rates dramatically improved throughout the 50s and ‘60s. It was in those decades that the first chemotherapies began becoming available.
However, even though these chemotherapies dramatically increased the survivability of certain types of cancers, they often entailed extremely brutal side effects and left patients with permanent damage, including things such as paresthesia and what’s known as chemo-brain, a fogginess of thought, which, in extreme cases, can be almost indistinguishable from dementia.
But for many types of cancer, survival rates did not significantly improve, right through the 1990s. Then a man by the name of Clay Siegall came along with a new solution. Rather than pumping the entire body full of the dangerous poison called chemotherapy, Dr. Siegall thought that it might be possible to specifically target the tumor tissue, only releasing the cytotoxic agent upon direct contact with the tumor site. In theory, this could completely eliminate the side effects of traditional chemotherapy regimens.
In 1998, Dr. Siegall founded Seattle Genetics, a pharmaceutical company dedicated to the development of targeted cancer therapies and specifically, a class of drugs known as antibody drug conjugates. These drugs use the body’s own immune system to identify and target tumor sites. Through the use of a modified antibody that is bound to a cytotoxic agent, antibody drug conjugates are capable of targeting only the tumor site, virtually eliminating the systemic release of dangerous chemotherapeutic agents into the bloodstream.
This revolutionary class of drugs has the power to completely change the way cancer is treated.