Student reflects on summer internship at cancer research lab


This summer, I worked in a small research lab startup focusing on immuno-oncology (IO) research business. Interestingly, business was hot.

According to the San Francisco based equity research firm, Jeffries, the IO market (consisting of major Pharma companies such as, Bristol-Meyers-Squibb, Pfizer, Merck, and Roche) is currently worth about $5 billion.

It is slated to be worth $35 billion by 2023, according to their financial analyst. This market value is rooted in the sale of immunotherapy drugs and treatments, which have the advantage of being both very expensive, and effective in the long term.

Keeping people alive with IO treatments equals the potential for huge gains in the eyes of Pharma companies and investors alike. This fast paced business is not exclusive to Pharma companies who are savvy in cancer immunotherapy.

Consider President Obama, who announced in his previous State of the Union address that he was launching the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative – a $1 billion program aimed at curing cancer.

Across the board from government to nonprofits to investors, there is big money that is being poured into cancer research. There is a dirty side to this new push for innovation, which is nothing new in the pharmaceutical industry.

For a year’s treatment of Bristol Myers’ immunotherapy drug, Opdivo, the cost for the patient is roughly $256,000 a year.

The economic and possibly greedy incentive in the development of immunotherapy treatments is rooted in the lifelong dependence on the drug, which translates to limitless money in the eyes of Pharma companies and those invested in them.

Limitless money, that is, as long as people’s desire to prolong life outweighs the desire to skirt high drug prices. But at over a quarter million dollars per year, this becomes a real question: is it worth $256,000 a year to survive in a financial and morbid catch-22?

To sum up the effectiveness of immunotherapy as a treatment of cancer, it is enough to say that breakthroughs from the last 20 years are finally being implemented in clinical situations, and in some cases, the immunotherapy drug treatments work.

Researchers recognized years ago that some forms of cellular communication are altered when parts of the body are invaded by cancer cells. Cancer cells are not disposed of by the normal course of action in the immune system because of this “cancerous” disruption to normal cell communication.

Immunotherapy drugs aim to alter immune system cells by cancelling out the invisibility cloak of cancer. In other words, the treatment of immunotherapy stimulates conditioning of the immune system to recognize cancer cells as “bad cells.” In this way, the body can rid itself of cancer cells as it would other harmful cells such as invasive bacteria.

Treatments have been made available to select sufferers in the cancer market, including Bristol Myers’ Opdivo, Roche’s Tecentriq and Keytruda, but effectiveness has varied. This new wave of treatment research is indeed rooted in what can be called a “cancer market,” however indecent this term may seem.

What is clear is that with the treatments available, no single drug works best. What many believe, like with the current treatment of HIV/AIDS, is that the solution to treating cancer lies in combining different immunotherapy drugs to achieve optimal results.

This drug-cocktail approach is sweet as a stolen kiss in the eyes of pharmaceutical companies looking to cash in on a treatment. According to the CDC, the lifetime cost for “managing” HIV is $367,134.

With over 14 million new cases of cancer in the world each year, having a working combination therapy for cancer spells a never ending jackpot for pharmaceutical companies.

The varied success of these prized cancer treating drugs has caused serious shake up in the stock values of big pharma companies who are heavily invested in them. Results of Bristol Myers’ clinical trials of their new Opdivo treatment was recently released with dismal results. In the month of August, their stock plummeted over 20 percent following the poor data release.

Ideally, the wave of innovation following breakthroughs in immunotherapy would continuously improve upon methods to allow the immune system to do what it does best: regulate the body, and eliminate hazardous waste. Apoptosis.

If immunotherapy works out within the next 10 years, then the pharmaceutical companies, which produce the drugs will strike gold. If not, then the hype may be unfounded, and these pharmaceutical companies may suffer.

The suffering for cancer patients will likely continue either way, with impossible prices to pay for treatment if it is found, and no better option than what is currently available otherwise. In my time working in South San Francisco for a company which aimed to “Redefine Immunotherapy.”

I was on the ground floor of research in the field. It is clear that in the current business of immunotherapy research, finding a way to interrogate the effectiveness of immunotherapy drugs in combination is the map to El Dorado.

As for who strikes gold if a working treatment is found, it suffices to say that it won’t be the people who need treatment the most, but rather big pharmaceutical executives and investors.


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