A former biotech executive who’s living with terminal cancer wants to reset expectations about new cancer treatments

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Michael D. Becker.
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Courtesty Toby Richards

Michael D. Becker, a former biotech executive, knows a lot about cancer drug development.

In 2015, he was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, which was caused by human papillomavirus (or HPV), a sexually transmitted infection.

After the diagnosis, Becker – who detailed his experience in “A Walk With Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur” – used his expertise in the drug industry to consider possible treatment options. One he was enthusiastic about? Cancer immunotherapy.

Unlike chemotherapy, which involves administering powerful drugs that kill both cancerous and healthy cells (most healthy cells can repair themselves), immunotherapies harness the power of the immune system to help it identify and knock out just the cancerous cells.

These treatments have generated a lot of buzz lately. In 2016, for instance, former President Jimmy Carter announced he was cancer-free after using the immunotherapy Keytruda as part of his treatment for melanoma. There’s been a surge of investment in cancer therapies in the past few years as well, with global spending on cancer treatments hitting $113 billion in 2016.

Becker is currently being treated for his cancer, and considered using an approved cancer immunotherapy. There are a number that have been approved in the past few years for a wide array of cancers from melanoma, to lung cancer. It’s led to a big marketing push to raise awareness for immunotherapy and new treatments.

“I’ve seen those commercials, I would think that we’ve cured lung cancer,” Becker said.

But when he looked at immunotherapy for his own cancer, reality set in.

The majority of the patients who got a checkpoint inhibitor, called nivolumab, don’t respond to treatment or have much of a benefit. The median survival rate (a measure of how long patients on the treatment tended to survive) was only a couple of months longer than chemotherapy, and even then it was under a year. “You’re not talking about a long term survival or anything like that,” he said. “At the end of the day it was only 20% that got a sustained benefit or a ‘cure.'”

Those odds weren’t good enough to convince Becker to try. He opted instead to enroll in a trial that explores the effects of M7824, a drug that combines the same checkpoint inhibitor as nivolumab, but packed in an extra punch with another target. In the end, his cancer still progressed.

So even though there are some new immunotherapy treatments one expert called the “most exciting thing I’ve seen in my lifetime,” there is still a long way to in making sure the majority of cancer patients respond to treatment.

“I think everybody thinks cancer’s just about to be cured, when we have a little bit more work to do,” Becker said. “I think if we can pop that bubble or at least reset people to have dialed down expectations for some of these breakthroughs make that in the public’s best interest.”