It’s hard to picture a more “personalized” approach to medicine than Dr. Ronald Levy’s.
Levy, chief of the oncology division at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, has spent his career finding ways to induce a person’s own immune system to fight cancer, specifically lymphoma.
Levy will be speaking early next year at the Personalized Medicine World Conference 2012 about his work and strategies for bringing personalized medicine into the clinic. His many awards include the General Motors Kettering Prize and the American Society of Clinical Oncology Karnofsky Award, and, ion 2009, the King Faisal International Prize in medicine. He was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2007.
In his work Levy targets the receptor molecules on the surface of cancer tumors using monoclonal antibodies that in turn induce an immune response – personalized antibodies – meant to kill the cancer.
“Each tumor is unique,” Levy said of lymphoma.
And “every person has a target that we can make an attack against.”
His pioneering work on this kind of patient-specific therapy – and a hoped for cancer vaccine – led to the formation of the company IDEC Pharmaceuticals in 1985.
While the company was able to develop some promising therapies the approach “wasn’t a good business model,” Levy said.
Yet that early work led to the development of Rituximab, an antibody used in the treatment of lymphoma, which is part of the core business for the company that absorbed IDEC, Biogen Idec. According to the company, Rituximab is most prescribed treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Levy is now working to develop treatments against B-cell lymphoma and looking at promising avenues for the development of a patient-specific cancer vaccine. His lab is also using high throughput sequencing to identify mutations in pathways with hopes of also identifying drug targets and stimulating the immune system to fight the cancer.
Levy is now working to develop other treatments against B-cell lymphoma and looking at promising avenues for the development of a patient-specific cancer vaccine. As with BRCA gene tests that are used to indicate risks for breast cancer, Levy envisions similar tests for other cancers. Knowing if a patient is at a higher risk for developing a cancer could help doctors and patients take steps immediately to try to prevent it, he said. Once cancer occurs, its genetic profile can inform the choice of which drug to use
Although genetic tests are already being used in a limited way, Levy believes we’ve only scratched the surface.
“Right now there are a handful of things we can test for that can make a difference for a patient,” he said. “In the future it’s not going to be a handful but a computer full.”
Genetic work-ups are increasingly becoming common, and Levy sees the only obstacle to more universal adoption of these individual genetic work ups being their relative utility.
“It’s limited simply by the proof of value,” he said. “Once the community sees that they work these things get adopted at lightening speed.”