One of the problems that have long plagued the use of traditional chemotherapy has been the issue of the systemic release of highly lethal cytotoxins into the patient’s bloodstream. The fact that chemotherapy is, by definition, a poison designed to kill as many cells as possible leads to the paradox that it must also kill healthy cells that do not have anything to do with the malignant tissues. This issue led researchers throughout the 1980s and 1990s to attempt to develop ways to deliver the cytotoxic chemicals contained within the chemotherapeutic agent directly to the site of the malignancies.
One solution to this problem was the highly innovative line of drugs known as antibody drug conjugates. These drugs use synthetic human antibodies as a vehicle to deliver highly lethal cytotoxins directly to the tumor site itself, obviating the need to release large quantities of poison into the patient’s blood. This largely eliminates the side effects associated with traditional chemotherapeutic regimes.
Antibody drug conjugates were first developed by a man named Clay Siegall, while working for the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. Dr. Siegall’s crucial insight came from the realization that antibodies, while almost never effective in fighting high-grade cancers, were always effective in creating a molecular key that allowed the antibody itself to seek out and latch onto the site of malignant tissues. This meant that it may be possible to bind a cytotoxic chemical directly to the antibody itself, only allowing for its release upon contact with the malignancy.
Not only would this allow for the patient to largely be spared the horrible side effects associated with chemotherapy, it would also allow the doctor to administer vastly more quantities of cytotoxin to the tumor self, potentially increasing the effectiveness of the treatment by many orders of magnitude. This was a promise that kept Dr. Siegall and his team dedicated to the development of this exciting new line of drugs for more than 10 years.
Today, antibody drug conjugates are FDA-approved for a number of different uses. They’re responsible for saving thousands of lives per year.