Cancer's natural enemy
But despite its potential, mixing customized batches of antibodies was (and still is) enormously expensive and labor intensive. That's when Levy and his colleagues tripped across CD-20, the common surface protein found on most B-cells that could serve as a more generic target. "It was a lucky accident," says Levy. Rituxan, commercialized by IDEC Pharmaceuticals (now Biogen IDEC), a biotech whose founders included Levy and Miller, is a monoclonal antibody that targets CD-20 and destroys the cancerous cell. Used in combination with chemotherapy, it has sent many B-cell lymphoma patients into remission and added years to their lives. And it's being studied for other lymphomas as well. Levy is now working to discover why some patients don't respond to Rituxan.
But he never lost sight of his original idea to target antibodies at the patient's unique tumor. His current research includes the development of a lymphoma vaccine. Doctors would take out a portion of the cancer and identify the specific cell antigen. Instead of making antibodies in a lab, they'd let the body be the drug factory by reintroducing the antigen into the patient, attached to a kind of biological red flag that would signal the body to react and destroy the protein. Even if all goes well--and he will get a first peek at the data next year--therapy is a long way off. "I'm still not sure that we won't have a magic bullet," he says. "It's just that the time frame in which we expect things to happen is unrealistic." But Levy is nothing if not persistent in the face of seemingly unrealistic situations. The lymphoma patients his work has already helped are grateful for it.